There is no other fall guy for the Windrush scandal. What would it take for Theresa May to go?

There is no permutation of explanations in which the Prime Minister should survive this.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

If success has many fathers and failure none, then the Windrush generation Home Office scandal is not only an orphan, it is an immaculate conception, a miracle brought into being seemingly without human intervention or engineering. It appears to be nobody's fault, even though there is a trail of neon arrows pointing towards Theresa May, her “hostile environment” Home Office, and three Immigration Acts, the most recent one passed in 2016.

It appears to be neither fault by design, nor by incompetence. It is not the natural outcome of the system working exactly as intended, nor is it a malfunction. Rudd, May, and all the other MPs that have been rolled out have been very careful in their language. All their sentences lack a subject. Theresa May wants to apologise for “anxiety caused”. Everyone is “appalled”. The Home Office became sentient, a character that is “too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual”, according to Amber Rudd.

Everyone is at the same time really quite sorry but for doing nothing wrong in particular, apart from maybe taking their eye off the Home Office even though it was clearly going through something and was becoming selfish, less empathetic and definitely drinking too much. It is the most passive scandal in history. There isn’t even a feeble attempt at buck passing, just an astonishingly firm commitment to a faultless error.

Who is responsible? Well, according to the government, someone and no one at the same time. It is Schrodinger’s crisis, existing in two states simultaneously, entirely and logically attributable to the Tories’ hostile environment policy – yet also somehow spontaneously occurring and unrelated to government actions. The Tory party is both alive and dead, active and complicit yet completely passive and bemused at how it all came to be. 

There is no permutation of explanations in which Theresa May should survive this. If it is the result of an immigration policy that does not respect the legal rights of citizens and migrants to remain in the country in pursuit of the highest number of rejections and deporations as possible, then she is unfit to govern. If it is the result of an immigration policy so wildly unsupervised that people can be arrested, detained, marched on to planes and deported without the PM or her Home Office minister knowing, then she is unfit to govern.

I’m assuming there are budgets for this sort of thing, especially during a time when there is no magic money tree. Whether it is a deliberate policy or cock up, it’s a circular firing squad for Theresa May. She cannot move without copping blame. And yet she still stands, as does Rudd, both continuing to spit out more tone deaf responses. After a national outcry about the inability of a government obsessed with mechanical corporatisation, unable to see people as humans, one of their solutions was the introduction of a “customer contact centre”, as if the Windrush victims were trying to process a refund.  

What does it take exactly? When does the PM stop being fit for office? I remember in my first philosophy module at university, the lecturer asked us to bring an onion. He asked us what we held in our hands. The answer was obviously that it was an onion. Then he asked us to peel a layer, then another, each time asking us what we held in our hands. Still an onion. After several layers, when we got down to the heart of it, when there weren’t really layers left to peel off but we still held the nub of it, he asked again. The class faltered, it definitely wasn’t an onion anymore, and we couldn’t pinpoint exactly when it had happened. What I am trying to ask is, when does Theresa May stop being an onion?


People have been denied benefits and NHS treatment when they have paid National Insurance contributions. People have been deported to a country in which they know no one. Elderly and vulnerable people have been impoverished and suffered severe mental anguish. People have died, allegedly due to intense distress and trauma. And yet no one will resign or accept blame, least of all Theresa May. What would it take?

It is not down to any shortage of national outrage. There is no lack of evidence. There is no third party private contractor. There is no fall guy. It’s not even because this is an arm’s length issue for May. There are very few issues that the PM has taken to enthusiastically, and immigration is one of them. She stands taller and prouder when she speaks on the topic. Her tenure at the Home Office was transformative, and her hesitant hedging on other matters disappears when it comes to her “tens of thousands”’ net migration target, or her rhetoric on what qualifies as a true citizen of the United Kingdom, a rooted unambiguous citizen of somewhere, with the correct paperwork and national loyalty.

There is no place here for the hundreds of thousands of people who naturalise but have roots or branches elsewhere. There is a straight line that runs from her dismissal of those who are “citizens of nowhere” to the fate that has been forced upon the Windrush victims. They were rendered stateless, rejected by their home and ejected into a vacuum. And if she is to be judged on the efficacy of her policies she also fails miserably. The tens of thousands target has not even come close to being met and the NHS still cries out for a higher visa allowance for non-EU citizens to fill its ranks.

May simply does not think that this whole Windrush affair is the sort of thing that would bring her down, the plight of a few immigrants that got caught up in what she still believes is a sound immigration strategy and will not apologise for nor disavow. She is the political equivalent of Lance Armstrong, not sorry she did it, only sorry she got caught. But to borrow her words, let me be absolutely clear, May and her party have inflicted a deep wound not only on the Windrush victims, but to the sense of trust in the government’s ability to administer the business of nationality and settlement. She must go, and with her a toxic immigration policy concerned not with making the country a better place for all, but with posturing to the British people’s worst fears and instincts about immigration. 

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist.

Free trial CSS