Theresa May, responding shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper over the Border Agency’s summer-time relaxation of controls at Home Office questions this afternoon, claiming the previous government had eased checks at “times of pressure” and implying this was once again the cause of less rigorous checks this summer.
Though the issue featured heavily at Home Office questions, Theresa May’s imminent announcement on the subject meant government responses were brief and much of the backbench consternation will no doubt have been withheld for the main event.
Labour MP Tom Watson asked May whether she accepted that “18 months into government, decisions are hers and hers alone” and not the fault of previous governments. May, appearing to hold back ahead of her statement later said that she was very happy to take responsibility for her decisions as long as members opposite did the same.
Earlier, immigration minister Damian Green clashed with his newly-installed Labour counterpart Chris Bryant on whether cuts in staff levels – 5,200 will lose their job by 2015 leaving 18,000 on the Agency’s payroll - might threaten the frontline work of the Border Agency. Echoing the concerns of several backbenchers, Bryant said that though Green “boasts that he is getting a grip” on immigration, “non-EU nationals are waltzing into the country”.
Green said that “the way we use people is what matters”, asking Bryant to stop his “huff and puff”. But huff and puff is exactly what Theresa May will need to avoid when she makes what promises to be an uncomfortable statement shortly.
***NOW UPDATED AFTER THERESA MAY'S STATEMENT***
Avoiding defeat meant several things for Theresa May ahead of her statement to the Commons this afternoon. It meant keeping her job and holding the high ground on immigration that Conservatives have become so used to.
This May tried to do with a narrow concession of responsibility, claiming that though she authorised a relaxation of border checks, specifically on European Union biometric passport holders this summer, the head of the Border Agency Brodie Clark and his colleagues went further than she had permitted when they lifted checks on holders of non-EU biometric passports.
With David Cameron staying in the chamber after his statement on a frantic trip to Cannes, it seems clear that, unless the facts change, May will not be forced into a resignation from a job that David Blunkett said this afternoon he knew all too well was a “ministerial graveyard”. Assuming the inquiry on the subject, which will report by the end of January, doesn’t turn up anything that contradicts May’s statement, a charge of negligence will be difficult to make.
As for the party politics of the issue, the blunders of the Labour government loomed as large in May’s statement and the following questions as they did in Home Office questions. Though May risked being seen to “pass the buck”, as Cooper accused her of doing, Conservative back-benchers lined up to remind us of the immigration policy they inherited.