Norman Baker departure casts shadow over Theresa May’s Home Office

Theresa May

As first Lynne Featherstone, then Jeremy Browne and now Norman Baker found to their cost, Theresa May’s Home Office has never really recognised the existence of the coalition.

As Baker points out in his valedictory interview: “They have looked upon it as a Conservative department in a Conservative government, whereas in my view it’s a coalition department in a coalition government.”

Indeed some may go further and say there have been times, particularly over crime and immigration, when Theresa May’s team barely appeared to be willing to work with David Cameron’s Downing Street operation, let alone Nick Clegg’s side of the business.

The atmosphere within the department is said to have deteriorated even further after the departure earlier this year of May’s special adviser, Fiona Cunningham, after her role in the row with Michael Gove over the government’s approach to tackling extremism.

Whitehall sources last week talked of an increasing “bunker mentality” with May’s advisers regularly being heard shouting at civil servants while refusing to engage with the media on anything but their own terms.

The low point for relations with the Lib Dems came last summer when the now notorious “go home” vans were sent round areas of high immigration without even informing the resident Lib Dem minister first. Inter-party relations went into the deep freeze at the Home Office after Nick Clegg torpedoed May’s plans for the “snooper’s charter”.

May and her special advisers have been ruthless in their approach to Liberal Democrat ministers. The first, Featherstone, was left alone as long as she never strayed away from the equality issues that she and May both cared most about such as female genital mutilation, gay marriage and people trafficking.

Her replacement in October 2012, Browne, although personally most empathetic with May in his personal approach to law and order, managed to initiate the international drugs study that was directly to lead to Baker’s resignation.

The study was the closest the Lib Dems could get to redeeming their election pledge to set up a royal commission to look into evidence-based alternative policies to the current criminal justice approach in Britain.

The study, conducted across 11 countries, proceeded at a steady pace first under Browne and then Baker when he took over last autumn with a brief from Clegg after the “go home” vans debacle to range more widely in the Home Office.

But since then Baker has found that, even with support from Clegg, he has had to negotiate every line of the report and then fight for its publication: “You don’t want to carry on walking through mud,” he said.

May blocked his evidence-based plans for limited expansion of pilot projects for GP prescribing of heroin for very hardcore addicts, or to introduce licenses for the medical use of cannabis and even to hand out free foil to reduce the harm involved in injecting heroin. In the event, the report’s publication was blocked for three months. When finally it was published its conclusions, which pointed to the need for a clear health rather than criminal justice-based approach to drugs, had been axed and replaced with a series of modest “reflections”.

Even in this neutered form when Baker tried to trail his report in selected newspapers, including the Sun and the Guardian, as May does with her own initiatives on a regular basis, May’s advisers immediately retaliated by simply dumping the reports on journalists without notice as a spoiler.

Nevertheless, the Home Office analysis in the drugs report made clear that a policy of “banging up more people” is never going to tackle current levels of drugs misuse.

Baker always insisted privately that his own relations with Theresa May were good. In public he always blamed unnamed Conservatives for his failure to make progress. Today he calls her “competent and professional” but adds that she treats the Lib Dems “almost as a cuckoo in the nest rather than part of government”.

His contrast with his “collegiate” three-and-a-half years with his Tory colleagues at Transport is telling and leaves little doubt that May keeps everything at the Home Office on a very tight leash. It is after all a department with a history where the slightest mishaps can prove career-threatening for a home secretary.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alan Travis, home affairs editor, for The Guardian on Tuesday 4th November 2014 00.27 Europe/London

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