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The female Home Secretary fell out with her Permanent Secretary – and the latter eventually left the Department.

We refer not to Priti Patel and Philip Rutnam, but to Theresa May and Helen Ghosh, who at one time held the position.  The latter reportedly found the former “difficult to get with”.

May herself was on her fourth Permanent Secretary by the end of her record-breaking spell at the Home Office.  The capacity to make changes, plus her Stakhanovite work ethic, not to mention a team of committed Special Advisers, helps to explain why she lasted so long.

For the department has a way of getting through Ministers.  Of the last ten Home Secretaries, three have resigned in post: Charles Clarke, David Blunkett and Amber Rudd.  A fourth, Jacqui Smith, left saying that she survived more “by luck than by any kind of development of skills. I think we should have been better trained. I think there should have been more induction”.

It may seem at first glance that Home Secretaries have less to do than when Michael Howard held the post.  After all, prisons was hived off under Labour to the then newly-created Ministry of Justice.  This would be a mis-reading of developments.

There was no Islamist or neo-nazi terror on any significant scale when Howard was Home Secretary.  Immigration was less extensive.  Judicial Review was not the instrument that it is today.

And Britain was still a member of the European Union.

Patel must thus implement a new migration system at the same time as ensuring that none of the many skeletons in the department’s cupboard leap out to bite her.

She cannot necessarily rely on the information provided to her by the civil service invariably being accurate.  It was this that did for Rudd over Windrush.  By the time she left the Home Office in 2018, Downing Street was a weak operator – damaged by the failed election gambit during the previous year.  Today, it is a strong one: the reshuffle suggested that Dominic Cummings is as well-placed as…Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were during May’s heydey.

So Patel has pressure on her to deliver that her predecessor under May, Sajid Javid, did not.  That is no bad thing.  But regardless of the rights and wrongs of who said what to whom over Extinction Rebellion, deportations or any other subject, one point is clear.

Which is that senior civil servants, or their allies, can’t be allowed to run amok publicly – using The Times yet again as their vehicle of choice.  As journalists, we cheer whenever details of rows reach the media.  As Conservatives (and indeed as citizens), we boo, or should do.  If Sir Philip or his friends have a complaint about the Home Secretary, it should be pursued through the official channels, not splashed all over the papers.

If Number Ten doesn’t get a grip on this furore – David Normington, a former Home Office Permanent Secretary, has  now joined the fray – it threatens to drag on into the Sunday papers, and thus onward into the start of next week.  If his successor can’t quieten his allies, he should be given the Ghosh treatment.

265 comments for: Is the Home Office still unfit for purpose?

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