On Sunday evening, Amber Rudd resigned as Home Secretary after admitting she “inadvertently” misled MPs over government targets for removing illegal immigrants. In her letter of resignation to the Prime Minister, she admitted that she should have been aware of information provided to her office making clear that deportation targets did, in fact, exist. But was this the only factor that led to her demise? And could her downfall have been avoided? Ultimately, it wasn’t the policy or scandal itself that led to her resignation, but rather her attempt at handling the mistakes she made that cost her her job. We take a look at the contributing factors below.

The initial response

When the Windrush scandal first broke, Rudd provided MPs with a commitment that those affected would be granted British citizenship and issued a number of apologies, attempting to quickly draw a line under the crisis. However, the overall impression she gave was that she couldn’t grasp why threatening to deport people that have lived in the UK for decades was such a problem. In addition, her comments failed to adequately make clear the difference between her Department’s ‘hostile environment policy’ aimed at illegal migrants and the Government’s treatment of legal migrants, such as the Windrush generation.

Critics have argued that even before the issue came to light in the media, at no point had she attempted to inject a more ‘humane’ spirit into her Department. Indeed, the leaked letter published by The Guardian portrays her as ‘boastful’ about the increased efforts to deport more people. Perhaps her stoic nature and inability to demonstrate a convincing dose of empathy at the very start was the first mistake she made, which ultimately cost her.  

Relative inexperience and bad timing

On the other side of the coin, maybe her relative inexperience was to blame. She has only been an MP for six years and after a short stint as Energy and Climate Change Secretary, was put in charge of one of the most notoriously difficult departments. Perhaps she had just been too slow to realise that it was a problem, and didn’t respond quickly enough in getting to grips with it. Unlike other high-profile scandals that have dominated the news in recent years, this was a sensitive and emotive issue that deserved a genuinely compassionate response. At the end of the day, this crisis was about real people whose circumstances had been turned upside down by Government incompetency. Compounding the issue even further, the scandal broke when the UK was welcoming Commonwealth leaders to London and attempting to expand its trade links post Brexit. It really couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The blame game

Despite the apologies, Rudd also failed to take responsibility for the scandal – even if the policy was introduced before her time. Blaming the volume of emails she received seems like a poor excuse, and is something that most have to grapple with daily. Also, blaming your boss and those that work for you probably isn’t the smartest move. Although Rudd did not explicitly criticise Theresa May, she questioned the direction of the Department and warned that it was too focused on immigration policy instead of actual people. While this may not have irked May, the suggestion she made that the Home Office had its priorities all wrong and wasn’t focused enough on ‘individuals’ would not have helped her case. Unsurprisingly, her civil servants sought revenge by leaking a series of documents exposing her lack of judgement and inability to get to grips with policy. One lesson she will surely take away from this scandal is to keep those working for you on the right side and to take responsibility for your own mistakes – no one likes to be thrown under the bus.

Innocently misleading or deliberate lies?

As soon as the evidence mounted that she had given misleading information to Parliament on more than one occasion, it was more a case of when she would resign than if. Her main reason for resigning was because she ‘inadvertently misled’ Parliament. Was she really that unaware, or did she just lie and try to save face? Whichever way you look at it, the evidence is clear that she was either incompetent, has a bad memory or lied to cover up the mess that had been made.

My guess would be the latter, based on that private letter Rudd sent to May, explicitly outlining an “ambitious but deliverable” removals target. Misleading or presenting false information is a serious charge in Westminster and Rudd’s lack of experience in the job ultimately cost her. All ministers are expected to multi-task – it is part and parcel of the job. Making a mistake is a forgivable act, but when the facts are put right under your nose (seemingly on multiple occasions) and you still fail to publically acknowledge that they exist, such mistakes are really inexcusable. 

So what lessons can we take from this in the world of public affairs? Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge the situation and take responsibility for mistakes that were made. Acting with integrity and clarity is imperative when faced with a crisis. Moreover, organisations facing a crisis should do everything in their power to be the source of reliable information for the public, releasing accurate statements and setting the record straight before the media does. It’s also vital to have internal policies in place for addressing crises, knowing who will take the lead in communicating to various stakeholders and how the process will be managed to ensure a successful response.

Four Public Affairs continues to analyse and interpret political developments through regular updates and collateral. Please email Sarah Jones, managing director of Four Public Affairs at sarah.jones@fourcommunications.com if you are interested in finding out more.