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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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.