02 May 2018

As the new Home Secretary, Sajid Javid inherits some difficult issues. Daniel Thornton argues that he can still be effective.

It is not an easy time to be a minister. The Government has a small majority, reducing its authority and making it hard to get things done in Parliament.

And it’s certainly not an easy time to be a Home Secretary. It’s conventional wisdom that the Home Office is a hard department to manage, and Brexit has made things harder still by highlighting divisions over immigration.

In The Times, Matthew Parris argued that political leaders currently find themselves in a “hopeless” position given the need to stay in touch with public opinion and in control of the complexity of the modern state. But even in these circumstances, it is possible for a Home Secretary to survive – more than that, it is possible for them to be effective. But to do so Javid should reflect on the advice of previous home secretaries.

Lessons of the past

The first step is to prioritise. This requires having a trusted team of civil servants and special advisers who can triage and help a Secretary of State focus on the most important and urgent of issues. It also requires creating space to get together with key people away from the pressure of events. A combination of leaks and what supporters of Amber Rudd have characterised as confused briefing may have undermined these relationships. Javid needs to work on making them healthy again.

This also means working well with junior ministers. As one observed, “political teams are usually made up of people who aren’t natural team players” – but Secretaries of State can’t manage on their own. Sajid Javid has five ministerial colleagues at the Home Office, including a minister of state responsible for immigration. He should take Alan Duncan’s advice “A good secretary of state will bring out the best in their ministers and enjoy their success. A poor one will be a control freak who tries to hog everything for themselves and in the end they are resented.”

The Home Secretary also needs to focus on how the department is working. That doesn’t just mean how they now do – or don’t – use targets to drive performance, or reviewing what signals immigration officials are getting about government policy. He also needs to make sure they create conditions to rebuild confidence. Javid, like John Reid over a decade ago, will have some license to look deeply into the department’s problems and how to prevent future ones. But not much. He has promised solutions and he will soon be held to whether he is delivering them. The Home Office faces massive challenges to implement key parts of Brexit. Addressing the immediate problems need to be done while also being live to avoiding future ones.​

Take control of crises immediately

But future problems will come. Home secretaries know they face more potential flashpoints than other departments. In the 2000s, the department was badly damaged by a series of crises, with six changes of Home Secretary over the decade. Reid described the Home Office as ‘not fit for purpose,’ which led to responsibility for prisons and courts moving to another department.

Javid also needs to consider how he will cope with future crises. As Jack Straw said “crises will always get worse if you are not seen to be taking control immediately.” Doing this depends upon getting a grip of the facts. It seems this happened too late with Rudd. Javid needs to make sure that he is open to hearing bad news, otherwise he will not be able to nip issues in the bud.

Outside his office on Marsham Street, the Home Secretary’s most important working relationship is with the Prime Minister. Because Theresa May was Home Secretary for six years, Javid cannot do what Reid did. But he is in a stronger position and has more room for manoeuvre than his predecessor because Theresa May cannot afford to lose another Home Secretary.