"Well done, Mrs May," says the Express this morning. "Well done, Mrs May," echoes the Mail. (Or perhaps it's the other way round.) "The best Home Secretary in years, declares the Sun. The Times (£) is more restrained: "Abu Qatada’s scrupulously legal expulsion shows the vitality of democratic values," it says. The Guardian's Patrick Wintour reports that "calmness, sheer determination, thoroughness and prime ministerial were among the many plaudits being sent [May's] way". The editorial praise would have been mirrored by front page headlines had not the terror suspect been flown out of Britain in the early hours of Sunday morning, too late for that day's papers, and had Andy Murray not scooped Wimbledon yesterday.
None the less, the explusion of Qatada has been a political coup for the Home Secretary. It follows falls in both gross and net immigration; a drop in the crime figures – despite the spending scaleback – and the (admittedly shaky) introduction of police commissioners. All this has been managed from a department notorious for shredding the Secretaries of State who run it. Charles Clarke resigned after the bungled release of foreign prisoners. David Blunkett was forced out after a rumpus about his nanny's visa. Jacqui Smith wished afterwards that she had had "training" for the post. John Reid branded the department over which he presided "not fit for purpose". How has Mrs May flourished, at least to date, where her predecessors failed?
The Home Secretary had given the department no thought whatsoever before taking up the post. George Osborne had spend the best part of five years as Shadow Chancellor before being made the real one in 2010. William Hague was prepared for the Foreign Office by a long stint in opposition. But May was Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary when the 2010 election was called, and was doubtless expecting after it to implemenent pensions and benefit reform. However, David Cameron was sensitive to the claim that the Coalition Cabinet contained few women, and believed it necessary to appoint a very senior one. Reliable, experienced and with – at that point – no discernable leadership ambitions, May got the gig.
Her timing was fortunate. David Normington, described by one senior insider as "a classic, old-fashioned civil servant steeped in the public service ethos", had begun to put the department back together again. The new Home Secretary saw her twin priorities as getting a grip on immigration and implementing the elected police commissioners policy that she had inherited. That meant cracking down on bogus colleges and splitting up the UK Border Agency (remember the Brodie Clark row). Unusually in age in which politicians are keen to avoid direct responsibility for public services, UKBA now reports to the Home Secretary. There is institutional reform to the police as well as to border control: a new National Crime Agency is to be established.
All this could be mere tinkering were it not based on solid reflection. May came to believe that the Home Office took a traditional civil service view of itself as a policy formation department. As her recent speech to Reform indicated, she wants it be a policy delivery department too. The Home Secretary is now at the Francis Maude end of the spectrum when it comes to civil service reform – believing that civil servants should be deployed for the convenience of effective government rather than career development. Her leitmotif in the department, when examining how the staff in each section of it works, has been to pose the uncomfortable question: "What do they do all day?"
May has restuctured her private office to put its running and the department's strategy together (under the control of Simon King, a senior civil servant with Downing Street experience). Maude is keen on other Secretaries of State adopting much the same model. The view of sources close to her is that she would have got a bigger bang for her buck had it been in place from the start, and that declaring the department fit for purpose again is "very much a work in progress". Establishing sure and consistent border control remains a problem. And the challenge of rooting a culture of integrity in police forces is described as "sobering". Counter-terror work eats into the time of Home Secretaries – as the legal and political work on the Qatada case will have done.
The Home Secretary is hoping that the new college of policing will set a higher standard, and that a wider use of interviews will ensure that immigrants speak English before arriving here. Tobias Ellwood and Mark Phillips wrote recently on this site about merging the emergency services. The Home Office believes that the Police and Crime Commissioners could play a role here. I detect no enthusiasm at the top of the department for it taking on new responsibilities – such as re-establishing control of the prison service, which it lost to the Justice Department when Labour set it up. This may be wise, given the sheer size and scope of the Home Office, and its continuing vulnerability to shocks.
May knows well that the plaudits she is earning today could easily turn into brickbats tomorrow – that a major terror incident or border control bungle could see her at the despatch box fighting for her political life. But whatever happens next, she believes that her mission is to return the Home Office to being what it once was: "one of the great departments of state". Perhaps a lesson from the past is that political crises and lasting achievements can run alongside each other. Michael Howard's reputation was under siege during the Derek Lewis controversy. But he won through, and will be remembered as one of the great Home Secretaries of modern times. Will his successor live up to his example?