'Don't let your officials take the blame or they'll have revenge' - comms pros on Rudd's resignation

Amber Rudd lost her job because she made the fatal error of letting her officials at the Home Office take the heat over the Windrush and deportation targets scandal - and because of institutional comms bureaucracy at the department, communications experts have told PRWeek.

Amber Rudd, who resigned on Monday after two weeks of negative headlines around the Windrush scandal
Amber Rudd, who resigned on Monday after two weeks of negative headlines around the Windrush scandal

Rudd resigned on Sunday (29 April) after a torrid couple of weeks, during which there had been a growing public outcry about the treatment of Caribbean immigrants to the UK during the Windrush era.

But last week, pressure mounted after Rudd told MPs investigating Windrush that were no removal targets and was then forced to admit a day later that there were. She told the Commons on Thursday that she had not been made aware of them but the Guardian newspaper then published a June 2017 memo, copied to her, which referred to targets.

The newspaper also published the full text of a January 2017 letter from Rudd to the Prime Minister yesterday, in which the former Home Secretary set out her aim to increase enforced deportations.

In her resignation letter to Theresa May today, Rudd, who was replaced within hours as Home Secretary by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, admitted she had "inadvertently misled the Home Affairs Select Committee" about the removal policy for illegal immigrants during their questions about Windrush.

The resignation of one of the most senior members of the Government could not come at a worse time for the Conservative Party as it faces an already difficult environment ahead of the forthcoming local elections this Thursday.

Hell hath no fury like an official unfairly blamed

"The now former Home Secretary's fatal error was to give the impression that she was letting her officials take the heat about 'the targets'," said Peter Carroll (above), former special advisor to Danny Alexander MP from 2010-2015, now director of Tendo Consulting.

He added: "In politics 'Hell hath no fury like an official unfairly blamed'. After all, officials know where all the bodies are buried. They have a vast array of information that can be weaponised and they appear to have done that in this case with some selective and devastatingly timed leaks'."

Comms bureaucracy at the Home Office

But the problem also lay with the speed of the response from the Home Office, thought Joey Jones (above), former deputy political editor at Sky News and now head of public affairs, Weber Shandwick.

He said: "Journalists understandably get grumpy when they’re kept waiting for a quote with deadlines looming. The layers of comms bureaucracy at the Home Office are always an obstacle to speed and flexibility, but in this case the situation was worse because any line would have needed Downing Street approval and in the end there were no good options anyway."

Chasing, rather than owning a narrative

And it did not help the comms operation that the Home Office was playing catch-up with its political master during the unfolding crisis.

"You have to feel for the individuals in the Home Office comms team who were clearly not being told quite everything by their boss, and ended up chasing, rather than owning a narrative driven by the media, seasoned with leaks and half-truths," said Jimmy Leach (above), former head of digital communications in Downing Street and the Foreign Office.

"But, institutionally, there seems to have been a strange lack of collective memory where no-one could lay claim to knowing what policies and documents the Office had been passing around these last few years. The communications office is tainted by that same dysfunction, but, in the end, transparency from their own minister would have made it all a whole lot easier."

Honesty is the best policy

And it was the lack of transparency, as questions were asked by the media, opposition parties and campaigners, that ultimately led to her downfall, said Lucy Holbrook (above), a partner at Pagefield.

She said: "Honesty is always the best policy. Amber Rudd should have tackled the issue head on by acknowledging the policy (and its failings), apologising to the victims and setting out steps to address the problem, and avoiding the drip, drip commentary ever since the story first broke. The wind would have been taken from her opponents’ sails, the story would have died and she could have weathered the Windrush storm."

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