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Amber Rudd, the Windrush scandal and the reluctant Remainer

The Windrush scandal is undoubtedly the scene of a crime, multiple crimes. But which scene and what crime now needs maximum public exposure?

Sajid Javid outside the Home Office in Westminster, London, after he was appointed as the new Home Secretary. April 30,2018. Stefan Rousseau/Press Association. All rights reserved. There is something bittersweet and something definitely fishy in Amber Rudd’s resignation. Many have celebrated it as a victory against Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’. At the Guardian they have probably uncorked a bottle of anti-Brexit prosecco. David Lammy MP whose relentless campaign for the Windrush generation has moved even usually xenophobic MPs and perhaps the Daily Mail has celebrated, posting a photo of himself next to The Wire’s Omar Little.

The ‘Windrush fiasco’ as herself called it, exploded under Amber Rudd’s watch, but it was not of her own making. The political responsibility for the appalling and dehumanising treatment of the Windrush generation lies squarely with Theresa May: the bad management of the story is on Amber Rudd. The hostile environment is May’s flagship policy, the one that arguably made her a darling of the likes of The Sun and Daily Mail and landed her the PM job. The hostile environment is May’s flagship policy, the one that arguably made her a darling of the likes of The Sun and Daily Mail and landed her the PM job.

The Guardian has been publishing the stories of the Windrush generation for months. There is no way Amber Rudd or anyone in Cabinet can claim they just found out about them last week, but they didn’t act on them. Why? Because those stories were the wanted and expected outcomes of their own immigration policy, not isolated cases or bureaucratic errors, those stories were exactly what the hostile environment was all about, until they no longer were, and the Windrush stories turned into a scandal and a fiasco.

How this happened is open to interpretation. The Guardian, Diane Abbot and David Lammy have certainly played a role in shifting the narrative in favour of the Windrush generation. But did someone else with less genuine liberal credentials lend them a hand? The way the events unfolded clearly shows that the resignation of Amber Rudd has altered the balance in the Cabinet between hard and soft Brexiters at a crucial time in Brexit negotiation. Is this just a side effect of the scandal or vice versa?

Was the Windrush scandal an orchestrated campaign to tip the balance of power in the Cabinet. Did the Brexiters and their media see an opportunity and make the most of it? The stream of resignations of close allies of Theresa May due to stories dating back many years that have suddenly resurfaced in the media invites an open mind. In either case, one can’t fail to note the amount of leaks and counter-leaks in the current government.

So once the Windrush stories became a ‘scandal’ a scapegoat was urgently needed, and Amber Rudd, willingly or forcefully, was there to save her boss and political patron; at least so it looked during last weekend.

How you interpret this part of the story depends on which version of the events you privilege: the Windrush as the end with the impact on Brexit as the convenient side effect, or the Windrush as a means to an end, the end being to replace a strong ideological Remainer with a more malleable politician.

In the latter scenario, the letter signed by 60 Tory MPs threatening to topple the PM if she was sticking to her Custom Partnership plan is only a red herring. It is not in the interest of Rees-Mogg and his fellow hard Brexiters to sink Theresa May’s government. No one else in the Cabinet or outside (ie Rees-Mogg) is in the position of mustering more support for their plan: they need her; but they need her weak and isolated. They need her; but they need her weak and isolated.

And this is where Sajid Javid enters, at least publicly, the stage. The same day The Guardian is leaking a document showing that Amber Rudd has lied in the House of Commons regarding deportation targets, Mr Javid, by his admission a reluctant Remainer, is given a whole page in the hard-Brexit Telegraph to say that he really feels the pain of the Windrush generation as this could have been his own family.

Never a more timely interview, he was immediately proposed as the best bet for replacing Rudd. Again, was the interview part of a wider pro-Brexit plan or the intuition of an ambitious politician who managed to place himself at the right time in the right place?  

I became suspicious of Sajid Javid’s compassionate interview after looking at his voting record, which shows how he has been supporting hostile environment measures for several years.

I am still puzzled by Amber Rudd denying the existence of deportation targets in the Home Office, which could validate views from inside Whitehall that she was a poor manager. Such targets were not something unheard of in the UK and other western countries. Sarkozy used his deportation record as minister of interior in France in his successful presidential campaign. In the UK, only four years ago, the Guardian revealed that under Theresa May the Home Office rewarded with gifts and extra holidays those rejecting more asylum applications. I guess the ‘scandal’ made it, at least for a brief moment, ethically and politically unsustainable to admit the existence of those targets.

But now that Rudd is gone and Javid is in the Cabinet, suddenly Tory MPs are mounting a sustained effort to push a different narrative of Rudd’s resignation: the Windrush scandal has nothing to do with the hostile environment policy. It was, they argue, a bureaucratic error, nothing more than a rotten apple in an otherwise successful policy basket. To them, it is crucial that the resignation is not seen by the voters as an admission of a policy mistake. How could it be? It is Theresa May’s flagship policy. But because Rudd lied to the MPs, she had to go. To them, it is crucial that the resignation is not seen by the voters as an admission of a policy mistake.

In the meantime, Javid has taken his seat in the Cabinet and in the Brexit subcommittee and the bet has already paid off. He has joined hard-Brexiters to voice strong doubts about the prime minister’s favoured customs plan, throwing his weight behind the alternative preferred by the hard-Brexit faction.

About the author

Nando Sigona is Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham and Deputy Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity. He is also Research Associate at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. His research interests include: irregular and child migration, governance and governmentality of forced migration in Europe, Roma politics and anti-Gypsyism, statelessness, and the intersection between migration, citizenship and belonging. He is one of the founding editors of Migration Studies, an international journal by Oxford University, co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (OUP, 2014) and co-author of Sans Papiers: The Social and Economic Lives of Undocumented Migrants (Pluto Press, 2014). He maintains a personal blog and is active on Twitter @nandosigona

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