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James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. 

Is the “I didn’t see it” defence for a senior politician reasonable or credible? This was the defence unsuccessfully used by Amber Rudd in her attempts to stay in post at the Home Office. Answering this question is fundamental to assessing politicians’ performance and, in Rudd’s case, judging whether it was right for her to resign.

Some of those reading this will have much more first-hand experience of government than I do, but I saw the realities of departmental life close up for a while, working at the Department for Education between March 2011 and September 2012. I joined at the tail-end of the highly chaotic period following Michael Gove’s arrival in the department after the 2010 election. In that period, not only did Gove introduce Free Schools and Academies but he replaced the controversial Building Schools for the Future (BSF) scheme which oversaw a major new building programme.

As many readers will remember, this latter policy particularly led to chaos and appalling media stories – and chaos was endemic in the department. The department mishandled the communications of the BSF changes, with some schools told they weren’t being rebuilt when they were and, worse still, with some schools being told they were being rebuilt when they weren’t. Up to that point, Gove had been arguably the great hope of the Government, but people were soon suggesting he wasn’t up to the job. He went on to become a hugely successful, reforming Secretary of State, but as 2011 approached his future as a leading politician looked precarious.

Was all this Gove’s fault? No, not at the beginning. Secretaries of State must be able to trust their officials and press officers with simple things like list generation. It’s not credible to expect the Secretary of State to say, “are you sure about that school in Cheshire?” If they questioned every detail in every memo, nothing would get signed off. Similarly, at that time, the department was incredibly slow getting letters to the outside world sent out accurately. Not only were letters late and a backlog developing, which reflects badly on the Secretary of State, but they were riddled with typos. (Hardly a national scandal but symptomatic of wider problems). Again, early on, this wasn’t Gove’s fault. At that time, the department he inherited was simply not up to the job and you can’t turn around a place like that in a few months.

How did Gove sort things out? Through hard experience, the intelligent hiring of advisers and other outsiders, the use of third party advocates and policy brains, and a rapidly rolling internal restructure. This ongoing restructure was particularly important. A new private office was created that was higher functioning than the one that went before, the best officials were given more influence and responsibility, and the third party network delivered intelligence and in turn made a public case on his behalf. Emerging political and policy emergencies were spotted early and headed off; crises were dealt with fast by securing all the facts and releasing them comprehensively and quickly; and a pro-active political and policy narrative helped drive the department forward. A year into the job, and certainly by the end, Gove was, and should have been, completely on top of his brief and the actions of the department. Yes, surprises still occurred, to all of us, but it was hard for us to blame others by this point.

At one level, it’s ludicrous to compare the DfE to the Home Office. There’s no denying that the Home Office is a much more complex and demanding environment than the DfE; the issues at stake are more immediately important, and there’s infinitely more scrutiny. The “I didn’t see it” defence is much more credible – and for longer – at the Home Office. However, not far off two years into her time in office, it’s hard for Rudd to put this defence up with credibility – particularly on such a high-profile, controversial issue like illegal immigration. That’s not to suggest she must have definitely been aware of policies that she claimed she wasn’t, but certainly that she should have been. Rudd should have had systems in place to warn her of impending problems, and she should have been in command of the department sufficiently to have swept all relevant facts into the public domain quickly. The fact she couldn’t do this left her in severe trouble.

This is a shame, as Rudd commands unusual respect from the adviser class. More than any other politician I’ve heard about directly, officials, advisers and outside experts talk about her professionalism, judgement and courtesy (although I have personally always doubted her understanding of the electorate). She will no doubt be back in charge of another department soon, and with the experience to make it work better than she did before. Her temporary demise in this job is actually the norm, and there’s no disgrace in it.

People will be expecting miracles from Sajid Javid. But he won’t be really in a position to be judged for departmental management for six to nine months. After that point, it’s on him. Failure will mean it’s back to a smaller department, success will mean there’s no limit to what he can achieve.

36 comments for: James Frayne: The Home Office is famously hard to run, but Rudd might have survived had she had a better grip on it

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