That Elizabeth Butler-Sloss felt unable to remain as head of the child abuse inquiry is not surprising. After the media reported first that her brother, the late Michael Havers, was attorney general during the 1980s, the period the panel will investigate, and then that she excluded allegations regarding a bishop from a review of how the Church of England dealt with two alleged paedophile priests (because she “cared about the Church”), her position became untenable. The conflict of interest, which was genuine, not merely “perceived”, was too great for any other outcome.
What is remarkable is that the Home Office was unprepared for all of this. Theresa May, who appointed Butler-Sloss last week, failed to carry out the most basic background checks into the former High Court judge. It took the media all of half an hour to discover that her brother was attorney general at the time much of the abuse is alleged to have taken place. The impression left is one of a government that, in its rush to get a “grip” of the story, neglected to perform due diligence.
As Yvette Cooper noted in her statement on Butler-Sloss’s resignation, the last minute nature of the government’s response (Labour had called for an inquiry for over 18 months) meant “proper consideration” was not given to the conflict of interest and Butler-Sloss was left in an impossible position by the Home Office.
This debacle should help to finally dispel the myth that May is a “safe pair of hands”. 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, the “go home” vans and the recent passport disaster. 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).
May, the longest-serving Home Secretary since Rab Butler, and a future Conservative leadership candidate, will rightly be damaged by this shambles.