The Curse of Being the UK’s Home Secretary
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because getting appointed home secretary of the U.K. is akin to sipping from the poisoned chalice.
By Robert Meakin
News of Jacqui Smith’s appointment as Britain’s first female home secretary in June 2007 surprised party colleagues and the country’s media. Yet some were soon predicting the promotion might lead to the 44-year-old Smith being well-positioned to become a future prime minister. What could go wrong? Well, plenty, of course.
Fast-forward less than two years and the politician’s career was in ruins. Her reputation wrecked by Parliament’s expenses scandal — most notably the humiliating discovery that her husband, and office manager, had accidentally submitted a receipt to the Commons for pornographic videos he’d bought — Smith had little choice but to resign. “My whole life has been about trying to do the right thing … and this is hung around my neck,” she reflected sadly to one reporter.
Home secretaries just battle their way from one disaster to another.
Paul Osbourne, political commentator
Smith’s fate fueled a long-held belief that the job of home secretary had become a poisoned chalice, with occupants regularly brought down either by personal embarrassment or political misfortune. With him or her responsible for everything from immigration and crime statistics to policing and terrorism threats, London-based political commentator Paul Osbourne insists: “Home secretaries just battle their way from one disaster to another.”
Conservative politician Amber Rudd is the latest ex–home secretary to be licking her wounds. While considered an assured and impressive public performer, like Smith she was gone within two years. Rudd was forced out over the recent Windrush scandal, which saw longtime British residents born in the Caribbean suddenly threatened with deportation. “During that last fortnight, Amber Rudd proved she was not in control of her department,” Osbourne concludes.
Troublesome love lives have played a part in the story in recent years. Labour’s David Blunkett established himself as a no-nonsense politician ready to overhaul the British legal system for the sake of national security post-9/11. Blind since birth, Blunkett had an impressive story, having coped with obvious physical challenges while becoming one of the most powerful figures in the land. But an affair with married publisher Kimberly Quinn — with whom he fathered a son — proved his undoing. Blunkett was forced to resign at the end of 2004 amid accusations he’d used his position to fast-track a visa application for Quinn’s family nanny.
He wasn’t the only home secretary with a turbulent private life. Party colleague Alan Johnson, in the job for just 11 months before Labour’s general election defeat in May 2010, later had to contend with media revelations that his wife had been in a relationship with his police bodyguard at the time. Their 23-year marriage ended in 2014.
Others simply ran out of luck. Charles Clarke doggedly tried to weather a political storm in 2006 after a Home Office blunder led to more than 1,000 foreign criminals, including murderers, rapists and child abusers, being released into the community. When Labour performed badly at the subsequent local elections, Prime Minister Tony Blair concluded Clarke had to go.
His successor John Reid quickly made his mark by announcing the immigration system was “not fit for purpose” — but soon found himself a marked man. Talked up as a leadership opponent to Blair’s expected successor Gordon Brown, Reid was ruthlessly briefed against from inside his own party. While diplomatically playing down talk of bad blood, he left the government when Brown succeeded Blair as PM in June 2007.
Being home secretary does not always prevent career advancement, of course. Having held the post between 1993 and 1997, Michael Howard became Conservative leader in 2003. But he could never shed an unflattering public image dating back to his Home Office days. One particularly damaging incident was a famously disastrous interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, when the politician refused 12 times to answer whether he’d “threatened to overrule” prisons boss Derek Lewis. Howard lost the general election in 2005.
And let’s not forget the man often considered Britain’s greatest prime minister of all briefly had the job more than a century ago. The tenure of Winston Churchill, appointed in 1910 at age 35, is best remembered for his much-criticized decision to make a personal appearance at the “Siege of Sidney Street,” when the police and army were embroiled in a gunfight with two Latvian anarchists. His 2001 biographer Roy Jenkins concluded: “The trouble was that he then could not resist going to see the fun himself.” Churchill instead became political head of the Royal Navy by the autumn of 1911. It would be another three decades before he was called on to lead the country through World War II.
It was current U.K. leader Theresa May who overcame the modern-day home secretary curse, lasting six years in the job before her promotion to 10 Downing Street in 2016. However, Osbourne reckons May’s grip on the Home Office left her ill-prepared for life as PM. “At the Home Office she was known as a micromanager who didn’t like to delegate. You can’t do that as prime minister,” he says. Noting her unconvincing performance on the general election campaign trail last year — May’s Conservative Party lost its Parliament majority — Osbourne adds: “She could hide from most of that at the Home Office.”
So where does this leave newly appointed Home Secretary Sajid Javid? The first politician from an Asian background to hold the post, he can at least point to the current prime minister as a rare example of longevity, while the fates of other modern predecessors make for grim reading. Recent history suggests he could be fortunate to last more than two years.
- Robert MeakinContact Robert Meakin