Former May Aide's Attempt to Defend Her Undermined by Email Leak

(Bloomberg) -- An attempt by Theresa May’s one-time closest adviser to defend her record on immigration backfired after emails seen by Bloomberg appeared to contradict his account of a controversial project.

The prime minister has had to apologize after the government admitted it had wrongly told elderly immigrants from former British colonies that they had no right to be in the country, threatening them with deportation, denying them medical treatment and putting some in prison. As Home Secretary from 2010 to 2016, May advocated a policy of creating what she called a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants.

In an effort to support May, Nick Timothy -- who was her adviser at the Home Office and then her co-chief of staff until last year’s election -- wrote an article in the Telegraph on Thursday explaining her immigration policy. In it, he said that one of the most criticized projects as home secretary had gone ahead without her knowledge or approval.

Operation Vaken

In 2013, her department launched “Operation Vaken,” aimed at encouraging illegal immigrants to leave the country voluntarily. Vans drove around racially diverse parts of London with the message “Go Home Or Face Arrest.” There were posters and adverts in newspapers as well.

Timothy said May had opposed Operation Vaken. “In fact she blocked the proposal,” he wrote, “but it was revived and approved in a communications plan while she was on holiday. She killed off the scheme later that year.”

The prime minister’s office on Thursday distanced itself from Timothy’s claim and said it hadn’t made any attempt to substantiate it.

Home Office emails from 2013 seen by Bloomberg show that on March 4 that year, four months before the vans were sent out, both May’s office and her special advisers, who at the time included Timothy, were sent plans for Operation Vaken, including images for the publicity. On March 13, May’s private secretary at the time, Matthew Bligh, replied, summarizing the comments of ministers in the department.

Far from objecting to the plan, May’s only objection at that point was that it might look too soft on illegal immigrants.

Home Secretary Comments

“The Home Secretary has commented that it is right to advertise enforcement action but we should not be advertising that we will pay people to leave, which is the effect of the proposed advertisements,” he wrote. “Please can officials consider how the material can be revised to get the messaging right and not expose the Agency to criticism for giving tax payers’ money to illegal migrants?”

On March 25, officials sent revised publicity images “in response to the Minister’s and Home Secretary’s steers.” May’s office continued to be copied in on emails about Operation Vaken up to and after its launch.

After Operation Vaken had gone ahead and been widely criticized, May distanced herself from it, describing it as a blunt instrument.

Timothy said in an interview that the March emails were a partial reflection of what was an iterative process. “There’s normally a succession of submissions,” he said. “While I don’t remember what every submission from five years ago said, what I do remember is that categorically, Theresa said: ‘I don’t want to do this.’ Then the proposal got revised and put back up again at a time when she was out of the country.”

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