Theresa May is interviewed after addressing The College of Policing Conference on October 24, 2013 in Bramshill. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is Theresa May's luck finally running out?

After the loss of her special adviser, the Home Secretary is now under attack over a huge backlog of passport appplications.

One of the most impressive things about Theresa May's ascent is that she has been Home Secretary throughout this period. The department known as the graveyard of ministers is traditionally one of the least promising berths for a leadership hopeful. But while New Labour got through four home secretaries in four years, May will this month become the longest-serving holder of the post since Rab Butler more than 50 years ago.

Yet this achievement has at least as much to do with luck as it does with  judgement. As Richard Morris previously noted on The Staggers, May's reputation as "a safe pair of hands" is a flat-out myth. There was the time she was forced to admit that "we will never know how many people entered the UK who should have been prevented from doing so", and the time she wrongly claimed that an illegal immigrant was able to avoid deportation due to owning a cat, not to mention the botched police commissioner elections and the "go home" vans. Yes, crime has fallen, but that is a decades-long trend that May can take little personal credit for (that she has done, and has protected her "safe hands" image is a tribute to her political operation).

In the twilight of the parliament, however, there are signs that her luck is finally running out. After already being humbled by the forced resignation of her special adviser Fiona Cunningham, she now finds herself fighting on another front. After the government denied reports of a huge backlog of passport applications (with MPs receiving hundreds of complaints from constituents), a photograph was leaked to the Guardian appearing to confirm the reverse. It shows hundreds of files, stuffed with applications, being held in a room usually reserved for meetings.

The PCS union says that there are 500,000 cases waiting to be processed and blames job cuts and office closures. General secretary Mark Serwotka warns: "There are clearly very major problems in the Passport Office and there are simply not enough staff to cope with the applications that are coming in."

The defence offered by May and Paul Pugh, the interim chief executive of the Passport Office, is that the service is experiencing "unprecedented" demand due to the economic recovery and a rise in holiday bookings. They insist that 97 per cent of applications have been processed within the three-week target. But even if true, that will be little consolation to the 3 per cent left waiting. Shadow immigration minister David Hanson notes: "Even according to the government's own statistics, 90,000 passport cases haven't been dealt with on time this year, so there is simply overwhelming evidence that families across the country are suffering needless stress, anxiety and problems simply because of mismanagement at the Home Offfice."

The immediate pressure has fallen on Pugh, who has been ordered to appear before the home affairs select committee next week and advised to make a "graceful exit" by Geoffrey Robinson. But May is under fire too. In the Commons yesterday, Yvette Cooper rebuked her for "taking her eye off the ball" and spoke of people "in a state of panic" about whether they would be able to go on foreign holidays or business trips.

As May will know, the Tories are at their most vulnerable when they are being attacked for incompetence, rather than wickedness. Should she fail to demonstrate sufficient "grip", her forward march could be permanently halted.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.