Sunday, November 13, 2011

The present British border skirmish is about far more than immigration

Theresa May’s dispute with her officials is an acid test of the Tories’ strategy – and competence.

In Ambrose Bierce’s indispensable Devil’s Dictionary, “responsibility” is defined as “a detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.”

The Ohio-born Bierce, one of the greatest journalists of all time, knew how politics works. In the row over border controls, Theresa May has declared unambiguously that “responsibility” for the excessive relaxation of security checks lies solely with Brodie Clark, who resigned as head of the UK Border Force on Tuesday. Under a secret pilot scheme authorised over the summer by the Home Secretary, border officials were no longer obliged to check children from the European Economic Area (EEA) travelling with their parents and in school groups against the “Warnings Index” (the Home Office list of individuals with “adverse immigration histories or who are of other interest to the Government”), or, in the case of EEA adults, to examine the second photograph coded into the “biometric” chips in their passports.

Clark, however, went much further down the route described by the UK Border Agency as “lighter-touch screening”: checks on the second photographs of non-EEA nationals were regularly skipped, for instance, as was the verification of fingerprints of non-Europeans from countries that require a visa. At Calais, adults were not checked against the Warnings Index.

So far, more or less everything has gone Mrs May’s way in the ensuing uproar. True, it is embarrassing to her that Mr Clark will almost certainly obtain a hefty pay-off for constructive dismissal. In the Commons, it was her Labour opposite number, Yvette Cooper, who shone (nobody can say “dearie me” with such menace). But at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron saw off Ed Miliband’s attack with ease, scorning Labour’s attempt to force the Home Secretary’s resignation. Indeed, the PM claimed, the piloted strategy of targeted checks had been a success: “The number of people arrested was up by 10 per cent, the number of drug seizures was markedly up, and the number of firearms seizures was up by 100 per cent.” Further strengthening May’s hand, a statement issued by Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of the UK Border Agency, disclosed that “Brodie Clark admitted to me on November 2 that on a number of occasions this year he authorised his staff to go further than ministerial instruction.”

Case closed? Not by a long chalk. On Tuesday, Clark will have his say before the Home Affairs Select Committee, and rumours are swirling round Whitehall this weekend that he has some embarrassing things to reveal. There are whispers about emails from Damian Green, the Immigration Minister – although Green, an honest politician if ever there was one, emphatically denies that any such documents could exist or that he ever green-lit, even with a nod or a wink, an extension of the scheme. There are anecdotal claims that, for six days after the story broke, lorries were being waved through at Calais as border staff were pulled off other duties to strengthen passport control.

It should be emphasised that much of this is gossip. But it is tinder that keeps the flame of political trouble alight while the three separate inquiries complete their work between now and the end of January.

As things stand, there is absolutely no reason for Mrs May to go. It is one thing to insist that ministers should quit if bad things happen on their watch, even if they are not directly responsible: the so-called Crichel Down doctrine, named after a case in 1955, when Sir Thomas Dugdale, the agriculture minister, resigned because his officials had improperly sold an area of land in Dorset. But the moral context is clearly different if officials – in Clark’s case, working for an independent executive agency – straightforwardly and directly contravene a minister’s recent instructions. To argue that the occupant of one of the great offices of state must resign in such circumstances is – in effect – to give every disgruntled civil servant the power to sack ministers by a simple act of vexatious disobedience.

Why, then, are senior Government figures so edgy about this case? For the simple reason that it dramatises all too precisely the big arguments of this Parliament. The policy in question is technical, often fiendishly so, but the issue is not. Philip Gould, the great Labour strategist who died last week, grasped this with particular clarity. Public anxiety about immigration, he understood, is a proxy for a more general fear of relentless upheaval and bewildering change. People pay attention when border control is in the news. Like the management of the economy, it is a fundamental test of Government competence.

On the Conservative side, the narrative in this instance is a perfect fit with its more general political argument. First – the argument runs – May and her colleagues are only clearing up the mess left by Labour: immigration out of control, a backlog of 450,000 unresolved asylum cases, no transitional controls for new EU member states. Second, the targeting of resources leads to better results. “Intelligence-led” border checks, rather than universal, uniform methods, are more effective, as well as a better way of spending public money. Thrift and best practice march hand in hand. Fiscal conservatism forces public services to raise their game. This is the claim to competence that will nestle at the heart of the Conservative sales pitch at the next election.

The Labour counter-narrative is the mirror image. Its weakest claim, road-tested in Wednesday’s debate, is that the defects in public policy in May 2010 reflected not the failings of the last government, but the lingering inheritance of the previous Tory administration: a legacy so supposedly ghastly that Blair and Brown were unable to sort it all out in 13 years. “It really is quite breathtaking,” said Alun Michael, the former Labour Home Office minister, “to hear Conservative Members ignore the history of the shambles that was left behind by the previous Conservative Government in 1997.” And why stop there? What about Macmillan? Or Pitt the Younger?

Much more to the point – and potentially dangerous – is the Labour claim that all this Government cares about is cuts, and that it is prepared to skimp on security. This is why Yvette Cooper mentioned Sheikh Raed Salah so often last week: the fundamentalist Muslim preacher, whose entry to this country had been banned, still managed to stroll in at Heathrow in June.

The plain insinuation is, and will be, that the Tories worry more about balancing the books than your safety. It’s a deplorable thing to say about anyone. It isn’t true. But it is “adhesive”, as pollsters say: a nasty suspicion that sticks in voters’ minds.

As they watch the eurozone collapse, they are in fretful mood. The Home Office’s private polling says that the public supports the measures the Coalition is taking to control the nation’s borders – but doesn’t believe ministers can make them work. That’s a chilling insight into the facts of political life in November 2011. No wonder the Cameroons are apprehensive about this furore: so much more is at stake than one woman’s career.


Candidates court controversial Arizona sheriff

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio makes inmates wear pink underwear, live in tents during Arizona's sweltering summers and eat green bologna. The Justice Department is investigating him for potential civil rights violations in his sweeping immigration patrols, his office has been accused of trumping up charges against political rivals and he has tasked his cold case squad with investigating ongoing claims that President Barack Obama's birth certificate was faked.

While any sheriff with such a resume might seem like one most politicians would actively avoid, some of the top Republican presidential candidates are lining up to meet with the man described as the toughest, the craziest or most bigoted sheriff in America.

Arpaio, 79, loves the spotlight. And as the anti-immigration rhetoric in the Republican primary has heated up, he has been soaking up the glory, inviting media from around the world into his large office that is overflowing with pictures and trophies to himself and his tough policies.

"Did you see this," he asked on several occasions during a recent visit to his office, flashing a photo of himself standing with GOP hopeful Herman Cain. "He's a good guy. Kind of like me. Tells it like it is."

"When is your story going to run?" was another oft-repeated question from the man who then insisted he doesn't have an ego. "I'm a private person. .... These people ... these television stations from all over the world ... they come to me. They want to talk to me."

Besides Cain, Arpaio met last month with Republican candidate Michele Bachmann. And he says he has recently had telephone conversations with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In the 2008 Republican presidential primary he endorsed Romney over Phoenix's own Sen. John McCain. But that doesn't mean he will automatically back him this time around. "He forgot to invite me to his fundraiser," the sheriff noted with a twinge of resentment.

So are all four seeking his endorsement? "Well, I'm pretty sure Perry and Romney and Michele, yeah," Arpaio said. "Herman, not right out. I didn't get much time to talk to him. He was late."

Perry spokesman Mark Miner confirmed the Arpaio-Perry meeting. Perry has taken heat from his GOP rivals for what they consider his soft stance on immigration, including allowing in-state university tuition rates and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrant high school students. An Arpaio spokesman, Jeff Sprong, said the Texas governor contacted Arpaio a second time last week.

Romney and Bachmann campaign spokesman did not respond to telephone calls and emails asking for interviews on why the candidates were courting Arpaio. Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon, however, characterized the visits and phone calls as fact-finding missions.

"All the candidates are trying to get up to speed on the border," he said. "... All the campaigns are reaching out to a wide variety of experts on a number of issues. Naturally, the border issue is one that will be central to the 2012 election, and therefore the candidates in general are trying to get as many opinions as they have."

Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who now teaches at the University of Southern California, called Arpaio "a precise human representation of the importance of the debate over illegal immigration.

"We've already seen how volatile the issue has become in the Republican primary, so candidates who might be vulnerable in this debate would see Arpaio as protection against criticism. But that same debate plays out much different in the general election, so his support has both risks and benefits attached."

And at least one Republican Hispanic group, Somos Republicans, warns that it will also be working aggressively at the grass-roots level during the primary to promote only immigrant-friendly candidates.

"With regard to Perry consulting Arpaio, we did push back against him," said Dee Dee Blasé, former president of Somos Republicans. "We sent him a strong message that that's a no-no. So hopefully Perry will pick up on that and not do that again."

But for congressional and statehouse candidates across the country, Arpaio's endorsement has become almost a brand, a stamp of approval for strong anti-immigration policies.

"I know of nobody who has the profile that Sheriff Joe has," Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, the architect of Arizona's tough immigration enforcement law, said in an interview last year.

Indeed, Arpaio advocates — and practices — some of the toughest anti-immigration policies in the country. A retired Drug Enforcement Agent who worked in the Middle East, Mexico and Texas before retiring in Arizona, he says he would send troops into Mexico to catch the immigrants before they hit the border. And those who do make it across should be charged with felonies, like they are when caught by raids on his turf.

While Arpaio has become synonymous with radical immigration laws, he built his reputation for being tough on crime when he first took office in 1993 and erected a compound of tents to house jail inmates. It's the epitome of hard time, with temperatures sometimes hitting 145 degrees. He also resurrected old-fashioned chain gangs.

Arpaio seemingly only softens when he speaks of animals. He was recently the featured singer at a humane association fundraiser, and he brags that some of the county's old — and more comfortable jail cells — are now used by the county animal shelter.

While Arpaio has long been courted by anti-immigration politicians around the country, he says interest in him rose again after Obama announced a plan to halt the deportation of some 300,000 illegal immigrants. That put the immigration issue back at the forefront of the presidential campaigns, he said.

"Nobody is saying anything," Arpaio said. "But I'm glad it's back on the table. I'm glad they are talking about it. People will be interested in it instead of just the economy. So I'm going to keep stimulating that and they can keep coming down here and visiting me, which confuses me. Why would they want to visit me?"


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