Tuesday, 1 May 2018

The Ministry of Intractable Problems

Amber Rudd MP, now the former Home Secretary

The BBC News Channel kindly had me on yesterday afternoon to talk about the job of Home Secretary and my fictional rendering of it in The Knives. Amber Rudd’s regrettable exit from the front line was the pretext; and the sixth of my novel’s seven parts does indeed describe a ministerial crisis wrought by cascading malfunctions arising from immigration policy, during which my made-up Home Sec David Blaylock must fight for his political survival or else by propelled out of the door – by events, unintended consequences, angry bystanders, assorted ill-wishers etc. 

(Spoiler alert: Blaylock wins the aforementioned battle, partly by outmanoeuvring a broadsheet newspaper determined to oust him, and by physically confronting a leaker within his department. Both of these dramatic turns are, I admit, a novelist’s fancy rather than the products of research.)

Anyhow, this (approximately) is what I told the BBC. 

David Blunkett rightly described it as a job consumed by 'intractable problems'. The job of Home Secretary - whoever’s doing it, of whatever political stripe - seems to me beset by three challenges that tower above all.

1) Because of the huge and burning responsibilities of borders, police and counter-terror, a great swathe of the public have an opinion on how the Home Secretary’s doing, even if they don't know his/her name or indeed anything else about them; and a goodly few are so insistent about what should be done to ‘sort out’ any given mess that you could almost believe they imagine they could do the job better - freelance, as it were, without training or experience.

2) Unlike in the other great offices, at the Home Office your ‘customers’ include a substantive number of individuals who don’t see you as acting for their interests – they don’t want you to succeed in your job (for instance, people who are very well aware that they are in the UK illegally; or people plotting terrorist acts of wickedness against the civilian populace.)

3) The cliché of ‘Events, dear boy’ is truer at the Home Office than anywhere else in politics. As Jack Straw’s ‘Sir Humphrey’, Richard Wilson, told him on the day he took up the post, he needed to enjoy the blue sky outside his window while he could, because an Exocet missile would be headed his way soon enough.

Straw – in his fine 2012 memoir – also stresses that the Home Secretary wrestles with four very distinct factions in order to force through policy, or even just get through the working week: there is the Public, there is the Press, there is the Party – and then there is the Department itself, which has a long history of taking a different view to the Minister, subtly or otherwise, as well as some strange collective sense of its own amour propre. (David Blaylock, while clashing with his own Permanent Secretary, feels a dispiriting perception afloat of ‘successive ministers as mere fly-by-nights passing through a far more solidly entrenched world.’)

I take from Straw that no-one can hope to survive long as Home Secretary unless they have more or less squared away all four of those forces: Public, Press, Party, Department. It’s a truly nerve-straining proposition, and small wonder the job has undone so many gifted, smart and seemingly durable performers. But, the knives are always out for you: you need eyes in the back of your head.