When the Lords began to debate the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which the Government feared it might try to sabotage, Theresa May exercised her right to sit on the steps of the throne and observe. Her expression said, “Don’t you dare.”
They did dare, but it availed them nothing. The miserable scrap of legislation to which our future was consigned got through unamended in the only place that mattered. The photograph of the Prime Minister perched on the regal step went round the globe and told the story of what Britain under her government was becoming: tense, watchful, repressive, interested solely in the outcome, never the proceedings.
A few weeks ago Dr Eva Joanna Holmberg, a Finnish historian married to a UK citizen and working on secondment from the University of Helsinki, received a letter from the Home Office. It said, “You are specifically considered a person liable to administrative removal under regulation 23(6)(a) as you have failed to evidence that you are exercising Treaty rights in the United Kingdom.”
Dr Holmberg telephoned the Home Office, was referred from one phone line to another, and in the end hired a lawyer.
The Home Office had sent out 100 such letters to EU citizens, telling them they must pack their bags and leave within a month. It subsequently admitted its mistake and is said to have reimbursed the letters’ recipients for the legal expenses many of them incurred. It wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened. Stories of similar letters being sent to EU citizens who were unwise enough to apply for the right to remain in the UK had been surfacing ever since the Brexit vote.
To say it was a “mistake” is not an explanation. How could such a mistake have been made in an organisation that understood the law as it currently relates to EU citizens? They have a right to be here until March 2019. Everyone in the building must know that.
Clearly the letters had already been drawn up, and one presumes they were sent out when someone pressed the wrong key on a computer. But doesn’t anyone check what goes out? And for what contingency were they drawn up? The language is not just bureaucratic and inhuman: it is chilling. The “specifically” is truly frightening. This is no way to address the citizens of a friendly country who have been working here and paying their taxes. This is the way you might address a population you wish, if possible, to remove from the face of the earth.
There is much about the Home Office that is baffling. Why, for instance, when it has long had the power to send EU migrants home after three months in the UK if they do not have a job, has it never done so? I heard a Government spokesman repeatedly dodge that question from a BBC interviewer last week. I was unaware the Home Office had that power. So, I would bet, were most people. Is it conceivable, I wondered, that the Home Office was unaware it had that power? Is it possible it knew it had it but was unable to exercise it? (Why?) Is it – a darker thought, I have them sometimes – possible that it knew it had it, could have exercised it, but chose not to? Again, why? – but the answer in this case is surely not innocent.
Again, how can it possibly have believed the number of overseas students who overstayed their visas to be in the region of 100,000 when it turns out to be roughly 1% of that? 100,000 was indeed the estimate of the National Office of Statistics, and how that office came up with such rubbish is another good question, unless it got it from the Home Office in the first place, which, given that the N.O.S. is a Government entity, is entirely possible. If it didn’t, and since the number of overseas students is part of the Home Office’s core business, you would have expected it to find the figure rather high and check it, wouldn’t you?
But no, you would expect it to know. Why did it have to accept a figure from the National Office of Statistics? Why didn’t it have its own records?
And here we come to a curious and important point, which probably also explains the failure to send unemployed migrants home after three months. The Home Office doesn’t keep records of immigrants entering the country. It relies on guesswork and something called airport surveys, presumably supplemented by the Tarot.
The courts, which do know how to count, say that approximately 48,000 overseas students have wrongly been sent home without completing their courses – “in some cases sacrificing a lifetime of earnings and borrowings from a poor family” (Vince Cable, quoted in The Independent, 27 July).
And since the Home Office has proved so hysterical about numbers of overstaying students, so inept at policing unemployed immigrants and so clueless about who is allowed to be here and who is not, would you expect it to be a reliable witness about the effect of immigration on wages and employment? No, and you would be right. When Vince Cable was Business Secretary, he saw no less than nine academic studies which showed that the effect of immigration on wages and employment was negligible (The Independent, 6 Sept.)
The studies were suppressed by Theresa May, Home Secretary at the time. “The results were inconvenient,” said Mr Cable.
What is it with Theresa May and the Home Office? Other ministers are given a department, serve for a few years at the head of it, and then move on. Theresa May has not moved on: she has taken the Home Office with her. Her refusal, as Prime Minister, to budge on the inclusion of overseas students in the immigration total, her silence on the true numbers who overstay their visas, her continued suppression of the reports Vince Cable saw, are only a few indications of how completely she has identified with the Home Office’s goals and culture.
She is extremely reluctant to distance herself from her former Department, however incompetent its behaviour and however thuggish its methods. When she moved to Downing Street she took her two Home Office policy advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, with her, and only the debacle of the general election campaign forced her to part with them.
It is as if she found something in the Home Office that complemented her personality. In its repressiveness she found reassurance, in its narrowness comfort, in the rigidity of its categories of inclusion/exclusion a certainty that steadied her. For she needs steadying: she vacillates, which is why she has to be inflexible.
Yet all of this does not explain the obsession with immigration, which, after all, is only one of the Home Office’s concerns. It does not explain why nine academic studies had to be suppressed because they were inconvenient.
On 16 March the London Review of Books published an illuminating piece by David Runciman, “Do your Homework.” It is partly an essay and partly a review of a biography of Theresa May.1 It said some remarkable things:
[May] “takes a position and then she sticks to it… Many of the positions she adopts are ones she has inherited, seeing no option but to make good on other people’s promises.
“…She came into a department that was pre-committed by the Conservative manifesto to bringing immigration down to the ‘tens of thousands’… Her colleagues, including Cameron, didn’t seem to have thought about whether this was a realistic target and assumed that if it wasn’t it would have to be fudged. May had no intention of fudging it, to the increasing consternation of the people who had landed her with the task. It is far from clear she believed it was a good policy. That wasn’t the issue. It was now her policy and she would see it through.
“…Unnervingly, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that her embrace of a hard Brexit, prioritising control of immigration over membership of the single market, is her way of finally completing the task.”
Those paragraphs explain a great deal, but not all. You may, if you believe immigration is at a dangerous level, sacrifice everything to bringing the numbers down; but if evidence emerges that the danger and the damage have been greatly exaggerated… then why go on pretending that the situation is worse than you know it to be?
The Home Office is paranoid: that is apparent. That is why it is so ready to believe nonsense. It’s not hard to see how in a large organisation there would be opposing currents, sections working in ignorance of what other sections were doing, and so on. It’s not impossible to see how, collectively, a sort of willed paranoia could develop.
But Theresa May is an individual. An individual, surely, is not capable of willed paranoia, which is a conscious desire to believe oneself to be persecuted while knowing one is not.
Why did she suppress those studies?
To whom were they “inconvenient”?
We ought to know the answer. She was running the Home Office when she put them in a locked drawer. Now she’s running the country.
1 Theresa May: the Enigmatic Prime Minister, by Rosa Prince. Biteback, Feb. 2017