British politics: Windrush brings down a minister

The scandal neatly encapsulated two of the government’s defining characteristics: incompetence and small-mindedness

The appointment of Sajid Javid as British home secretary, following the resignation of Amber Rudd on Sunday night, will strengthen the hard Brexiteers at senior levels in the cabinet and leave prime minister Theresa May still more isolated at a crucial point in the talks on the UK's departure from the EU.

Rudd's resignation had become inevitable when leaks showed the extent of her knowledge about targets for removing illegal migrants. Only last week she had denied any knowledge of such targets, but correspondence published by the Guardian on Sunday showed Rudd had told Downing Street last year of an "ambitious but deliverable" target for an increase in deportations.

Theresa May has apologised for the treatment of the Windrush generation, but she had two big reasons for hoping Amber Rudd could survive the scandal

Rudd had been under pressure for weeks after relevations about her department’s treatment of the so-called Windrush generation of Caribbean migrants who came to Britain between the mid-1940s and the 1970s as the country rebuilt itself after the second World War. Such migrants required no documentation when they arrived, but a hardening of policy in recent years has resulted in some of them being threatened with deportation, despite having lived nearly all their lives in the country. The scandal neatly encapsulated two of the government’s defining characteristics: incompetence and small-mindedness.

May has apologised for the treatment of the Windrush generation, but she had two big reasons for hoping Rudd could survive the scandal. The first was the prime minister’s own exposure to the fallout. Although Rudd was in charge at the home office when the scandal erupted, the policy that produced it, known as the “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, was the brainchild of her predecessor – one Theresa May. With Rudd gone, the opposition can shift its focus to the prime minister, though the absence of an obvious successor capable of steering the divided Conservative parliamentary party through the Brexit talks will protect her in the short term at least.

Amber Rudd could yet do more from the sidelines to steer Britain towards a sensible Brexit than she ever managed from the heart of government

The second reason for May to regret Rudd's removal is its effect on the internal dynamics of the Brexit talks. Rudd was, along with chancellor Philip Hammond, the most influential advocate for a soft Brexit. Her successor, Javid, has said that remaining in a customs union would be a betrayal of the referendum vote. Presumably he will bring the same wrong-headed argument into the cabinet's Brexit subcommittee, which will this week discuss Britain's future customs ties with the EU.

Rudd may yet play an important role, however. Her resignation could strengthen the ranks of the Conservative backbench rebels – a group including former ministers Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, who have already voted with the opposition to defeat the government on Brexit. Rudd could yet do more from the sidelines to steer Britain towards a sensible Brexit than she ever managed from the heart of government.

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