Conservative MPs still don’t know much about Theresa May, but they are clear on what she dislikes: immigration. The Prime Minister has never been particularly forthcoming about her private hobbies or her policy passions, even with her allies, but the golden thread of her ministerial career has been an all-consuming obsession with reducing the number of people coming to the United Kingdom.
The keystone of that project is the government’s “hostile environment” policy, and its legislative pillars are the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016. The aim is to make life in the UK so burdensome and unwelcoming that undocumented immigrants will decide voluntarily to go elsewhere. This is achieved by co-opting high street banks, the National Health Service, charities, schools and landlords into the border force: each of these bodies is now required to check that anyone who uses their services has a legal right to remain here.
The 2014 act was the crowning achievement of May’s time at the Home Office, albeit one that was watered down under protests from the Liberal Democrats and the chancellor at the time, George Osborne. The cabinet’s migrationists agreed to the legislation because they believed it would continue New Labour’s old Faustian pact with the electorate – compensating for free movement within the EU by increasing cruelty to anyone coming from outside it.
In policy terms, the act was a failure: the government continued to flunk David Cameron’s test of getting immigration down to the “tens of thousands” – net migration was 336,000 in the year to June 2015 – and the UK still voted to leave the EU. Yet it was a political success for May, whose anti-migration bona fides helped to secure her the party leadership.
The Immigration Act that followed was the product of a May at the peak of her powers and a unipolar Whitehall in which the Home Office was in the ascendant. The 2014 bill had to be trimmed to fit the demands of the Treasury and the Liberal Democrats, particularly Vince Cable at the Department for Business. The 2016 bill faced no such restrictions and the reach of the hostile environment was broadened further, with “deport first, appeal later” extended from convicted criminals to all migrants.
This is the background to the ongoing scandal over the treatment of the Windrush generation – named after the ship – adults now around retirement age who came to the United Kingdom as children (and imperial citizens) after the Second World War. Their indefinite leave to remain in Britain was enshrined into law in 1971.
The cruel and careless threats to deport them are not the result of incompetence on the part of the sitting Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, or bureaucratic overreach on the part of her department. They are the result of a deliberate effort by the government to make life in the UK untenable for undocumented immigrants, even if they turn out to be here legally. The Windrush Britons have started to fall foul of the hostile environment policy in growing numbers because as they get older, they are coming into increasing contact with the state when they retire, fall ill or try to move house. At this point, many discover they do not have the identity documents to satisfy the Home Office’s draconian requirements.
Rudd’s critics are right to say that the row reflects poorly on her. But they are wrong about why. Her sin is not incompetence, but cowardice. Rudd is presiding over a department functioning as Downing Street intends, but in direct contravention of her own political instincts.
When the 2016 Immigration Act passed, May’s popularity and her monstrous poll lead meant that ministers had little option but to kneel before her. (Downing Street went so far as to refuse May’s former leadership rival, Andrea Leadsom, permission to board a plane on government business for the first six months of her tenure as environment secretary.) But May is a diminished figure now and Rudd could, if she wanted, exert herself in the service of her liberal principles.
Rudd’s silence is all the more disappointing because the Windrush scandal could be a moment for Westminster’s pro-migration politicians to recover their poise and confidence. The only way to meaningfully protect the rights of this generation, and other long-term immigrants in the UK, is to dismantle the hostile environment: to accept that you cannot separate “good” and “bad” immigrants by government fiat. The only way to have an immigration system that treats the innocent with a measure of humanity is to have one that treats the guilty humanely, too.
The disaster is an opportunity for Rudd, who is agreed privately by both allies and opponents to be the most liberal occupant of the Home Office since Roy Jenkins in the 1960s. She could use the public outcry over the treatment of the Windrush generation and her Prime Minister’s own weakness as an excuse to make the case for a different approach. She could, at the very least, make clear the relationship between a hostile environment policy which the public supports in the abstract, and the inevitable consequence of that policy – threatening to deport Windrush Britons, which three-quarters of the public oppose.
Rudd could also show that her frequent billing as a leader-in-waiting is more than just hype – and halt the growing consensus in Conservative circles that she is part of the problem at the Home Office. As she has neglected to do so, the task of outlining what has gone wrong in the Windrush case is left to her political opponents within the Conservative Party, whose preferred explanation is that the only change needed at the Home Office is a politician more skilled at administering a hostile border.