The home secretary has finally quit in the fallout of the Windrush scandal - and it heaps more pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May
It’s the issue which has dragged on for weeks while everyone around it has scrambled to avoid the fallout, but the Windrush scandal finally claimed its first victim on Sunday night when Home Secretary Amber Rudd offered her resignation.
It came after The Guardian published a leaked 2017 letter to Theresa May which appeared to contradict evidence she had given to the home affairs select committee last Wednesday. Hours later, she quit her role.
With the government balanced on a knife edge over Brexit already, this is the last thing Theresa May - who was under fire herself given that she preceded Rudd in the role as Home Secretary - would have wanted. So where does this leave her embattled government - and herself?
What’s the background to this?
Rudd is the first casualty of the Windrush Scandal, which broke just over two weeks ago. This has been the coming to light of the appalling treatment of thousands of people who moved to the United Kingdom in the post-war era between 1948 and 1971 from Commonwealth countries. Named ‘Windrush’ after one of the boats used for the mass immigration, those who came were given British citizenship under the British Nationality Act of 1948 and had never needed to apply for British passports.
However, tightened regulations issued by the Home Office had led to stories of people being threatened with - and suffering - deportation, having NHS services and other basic rights denied unless they provided proof of their legal status to remain.
Labour MP David Lammy was among those to castigate the government for its actions, with Rudd herself describing the treatment of these individuals as “appalling” and admitting that the new policy had had “catastrophic effects on individuals’ lives”.
Why has it taken this long for anyone to take responsibility?
Politically, the scandal is an incredibly sensitive one for the government. The entire sorry mess seems to have originated from a change in culture at the home office, instigated by its former boss: who happens to be Prime Minister Theresa May. She was home secretary between 2010 and 2016 when it hardened its stance against illegal immigrants, including the infamous ‘go home or face arrest’ van billboard campaign which ran in 2013 (vans which resulted in just 11 people leaving Britain).
Thus, any indication that the department is to blame potentially incriminates May. Amber Rudd, therefore, has attempted, until now, to ride out the storm. Following an initial apology which acknowledged that her department had become “too concerned with policy”, causing it to “lose sight of the individual”, Rudd then offered to waive citizenship fees for the Windrush generation and their families as well as any charges for returning to the UK for those had retired to their countries of origin.
However, David Lammy was one of many to point out the language she used in making this offer still seemed to miss the point, saying, “I and others are in this country because my parents were born under the British empire. When she says that people can apply for British citizenship if they want it, does she understand that that citizenship was theirs all along?”
So why has she gone now?
After looking like she might survive the crisis, Rudd has been forced to resign over comments made to the home affairs select committee last Wednesday.
When asked whether targets for removals from the country were set, she replied: “We do not have targets for removals.”
However, a four-page letter sent in January 2017 from Rudd to May, and leaked to the Guardian, who published it on Sunday afternoon, showed Rudd offering to set an “ambitious but deliverable” target for an increase in the enforced deportation of immigrants, specifically an “aim of increasing the number of enforced removals by more than 10% over the next few years”.
Rudd had already been under fire after a leaked memo sent to her in June 2017 by Hugh Ind, the director general of Immigration Enforcement in the Home Office was published on Friday, which stated that his agency had “set a target of achieving 12,800 enforced returns in 2017/18 … this will move us along the path towards the 10% increased performance on enforced returns which we promised the Home Secretary earlier this year”.
This left Rudd in an awkward position - either she did not know about the memo and was not in control of her own department, or she knew about the targets and had deliberately misled the select committee. With the publication of her letter to May, it now seems certain to have been the latter.
Rudd then decided to resign rather than face the Commons on Monday, with her letter to May saying she had “become aware of information provided to my office which makes mention of targets. I should have been aware of this, and I take full responsibility that I was not.”
So where does this leave Theresa May?
In a very sticky position. While Rudd has resigned on a specific point of truth - or otherwise - the fact remains that the entire scandal has resulted from the harsh targets-first, people-later approach first brought in by May. Commentators have pointed out that this approach encouraged officials to deport anyone they could to meet these targets, even those who deserved who be in the country.
She has already been forced to apologise for the treatment of the Windrush generation during the recent Commonwealth heads of government meeting - she initially refused a request to meet the leaders of those countries affected.
Rudd’s resignation brings the scandal closer to May, who was, lest we forget, already in a perilous position following her disastrous 2017 election performance and the difficulties of Brexit negotiations. While Rudd was there to take the blame, she offered some protection to May to avoid public anger - now she is left unprotected.
In addition, Rudd was a former remainer, meaning that her departure will upset the already delicate balance May, herself a former remainer, has maintained in the cabinet.
For Rudd, too, this is a personal setback, given that she capably stood in for May during the election debates (despite her father passing away just 48 hours beforehand) and was seen by many as a potential leadership candidate, when the time comes for May to step down.
Who will replace her?
Naturally, this being politics, talk has already turned to who will be Rudd’s replacement, with Sajid Javid the early favourite. As a remainer, he would maintain the balance in the cabinet, while he will have the credibility to sort out the Windrush scandal, given that he was on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph speaking of his anger over the situation, saying: “I thought that could be my mum … my dad … my uncle … it could be me.”
Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, minister for the Cabinet Office David Lidington (who replaced Damien Green), Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley are the others considered to be in the frame.
Meanwhile, with more cases of people suffering under the home office policy emerging each day, all eyes will now fall on Theresa May.
**UPDATE: Sajid Javid was confirmed as the new home secretary on Monday morning**