After the 2001 general election massacre, a consensus swiftly established itself in the Conservative party. William Hague had fought on the wrong issues. Instead of Europe and asylum, his chosen battlegrounds, he should have championed health and education. Hague’s mistake, so conventional wisdom held, doomed the Conservatives to be the rancid voice of the malcontents, the losers, the racists: the detritus of 21st-century Britain.
This persuasive analysis, associated above all with the so-called ‘modernisers’, swiftly took hold in Tory high command after Hague’s abrupt departure. It held sway under Iain Duncan Smith, and even more so under Michael Howard. For the last three years prodigious efforts have gone into establishing the Conservative party as sound on public services. This project reached its culmination back in February, when the shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin promised to meet Gordon Brown’s hugely ambitious spending targets for health and education.
This was the moment, so the modernisers felt, when the Conservative party returned to the British political mainstream. Europe seemed to have gone off the radar screen, asylum-seekers reduced to a bureaucratic argument, the Hague heresy expunged. The Conservatives seemed set to fight the general election, most likely to be held on 5 May next year, on public-service reform.
But elections can never be worked out as abstractions. They are always forged in the white heat of events, and events have moved precipitately in the last two to three weeks. First came the al-Qa’eda bombs in Madrid. These brought about instant regime change in Spain, with the consequent loss of Tony Blair’s closest European ally. As a direct result, the European constitution —- blocked by the Blair/Aznar alliance — is back at the top of the agenda.
This is a very difficult issue for the government. When plans for the constitution collapsed last year, there was an audible sigh of relief from Downing Street. Now the Prime Minister may be forced to sign a new treaty as early as this June, with ratification by member states over the next two years or so. This timetable is a nightmare, because it means that the row over the constitution will infect next year’s general election, with devastating consequences for Tony Blair’s relationship with News International. Last Sunday the News of the World called Tony Blair a ‘traitor’ for giving in so readily over the constitution last weekend in Brussels. This very harsh language raises the issue of how the NoW, or for that matter the Sun, could possibly endorse a leader they regard as treasonable at a general election.
More lethal still are immigration and asylum. Like the European constitution, immigration seemed to have died as an electoral issue. The tide of asylum-seekers was slowing, while the Tories were chary of raising the matter for fear of being labelled racist. This can no longer be the case, thanks to the deeply disturbing revelations about immigration policy over the last three weeks.
It is hard to exaggerate the scale of the crisis that now faces Tony Blair and his Home Secretary. They are confronted with a failure of public policy of massive dimensions. Superb Sunday Times journalism and despairing whistle-blowers have between them brought to light a giant scandal — nothing less than the collapse of the immigration service. Revelations over the last few weeks have proved that the Home Office has been not merely the victim but, to all intents and purposes, the lackey of organised crime.
Reading the leaked letters from Foreign Office staff in the Bucharest embassy to immigration officials at Lunar House in Croydon just makes you want to weep. Again and again hard-working embassy officials identify applicants for immigration as fraudulent or criminal. Again and again they do their duty and warn the immigration department. But almost every time the applicants are just waved through. As long as 18 months ago Sir John Ramsden, head of the central and north western department of the FCO, told senior Home Office officials that ‘an organised scam’ was in progress. His words were ignored. The immigration department has known for at least 18 months that criminal elements were abusing the European Community’s Association Agreement (ECAA) to traffic people into the UK, but has done nothing about it.
The response from the government has been wretched. It began, as it invariably does in a crisis, by lying. When the first Sunday Times story, revealing that officials had been ordered to ‘fast track’ applications, broke in early March, the Home Office responded, ‘There have been no changes in procedures or dip in the level of the scrutiny applied by caseworkers.’ The immigration minister Beverley Hughes was forced to admit that this claim was a lie when she came to the Commons on 8 March. But she at once came up with another falsehood, asserting that the cases highlighted in the Sunday Times were ‘rare and untypical’. This week’s revelations show that they were very widespread indeed.
Tony Blair and David Blunkett have thrown a protective ring around Beverley Hughes. New Labour never likes to ‘give a scalp’ to the tabloid press. This kind of loyalty is admirable in its way, and on occasion justified. But the tabloid press, whatever its undoubted faults, is not responsible for the unprecedented shambles over which Mr Blunkett and his assistant Ms Hughes preside. All it has done is to bring it to public attention.
Hughes’s assertion that she did not have the faintest idea of what was going on in her own department, dubious enough in any case, is hardly a defence. There is now a rich body of evidence that the immigration service is a disaster. She has been in charge for the last two years, and at the very least should take responsibility. Tony Blair’s decision to leave this incompetent, blame-dodging minister in charge of immigration policy is negligent.
It is also a mistake. For one thing, it sends out a terrible message about our public life when ministers refuse to take responsibility for their own mess and cling pathetically to office, while the only victims are the whistle-blowers who bring incompetence to public attention. This week Blunkett sanctioned Hughes’s incompetence. Had they sacked her at once, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary would have sent out the message that they were not prepared to tolerate the shameful state of affairs in her department; now they are taking responsibility for it as well.
There is discontent and alarm within parts of Conservative Central Office this week. Michael Howard had originally intended to make the National Health Service the subject of his Commons Opposition Day debate on Tuesday. He only changed to immigration at the last moment, and after much agonising. For some modernisers that was a fulcrum decision, the moment when Tory election policy started to go disastrously wrong. But Tony Blair’s decision to defend Beverley Hughes this week has given the Conservatives a priceless political gift. There are those who, looking back, are wondering whether William Hague was right after all.