ark Harper, Britain's immigration minister, dramatically resigned from the Government last night (Saturday) after discovering that the woman he had paid to clean his flat for the past six years was an illegal immigrant.
Harper has been the face of the Coalition's Immigration Bill reforms and was responsible for driving the Government's increasingly hard line on illegal migrants in recent months.
Downing Street insisted that the Conservative MP had not "knowingly" employed an illegal immigrant and he denied having broken the law. However, Harper, 43, who was seen as one of the party's brightest prospects, admitted that he should have checked the status of his South American cleaner "more thoroughly".
Government sources stressed that Harper would not face any investigation. Legal experts, however, suggested that his failure to keep copies of the cleaner's documents could leave him open to a pounds 5,000 civil fine. Colin Yeo, a barrister from Garden Court Chambers in London, likened the case to that of Baroness Scotland, the former Labour minister, who was fined pounds 5,000 in 2009 for employing an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper and failing to keep copies of the documents.
Harper has employed the woman since 2007 but conducted only one full check on her background at the time he hired her.
While he considered making further investigations into her background when he was appointed a minister in 2010, and again when he became immigration minister two years later, he did not ask his officials formally to examine her status until last week. These checks concluded on Thursday that the cleaner did not have the necessary legal status of "indefinite leave to remain", despite her providing Harper with documents which stated that she did. The woman, who has not been named, is now subject to an investigation by immigration enforcement officers.
Harper decided to quit immediately in an attempt to prevent a drawn-out scandal, and David Cameron thanked him for his "loyalty".
However, the loss of Harper under such circumstances will be acutely embarrassing for the Prime Minister, who has made cutting net migration and tackling illegal immigrants central to his mission as he seeks to fend off the threat from the UK Independence Party at the European elections in May.
Harper announced his decision to resign in a letter to Cameron, in which he apologised for causing "embarrassment". He wrote: "Although I complied with the law at all times, I consider that as immigration minister, who is taking legislation through Parliament which will toughen up our immigration laws, I should hold myself to a higher standard than expected of others. I have also considered the impact on my parliamentary colleagues, the Government and you. "I have always believed that politics is a team game, not an individual sport. Under the circumstances, I have therefore decided that the right course is for me to return to the back benches."
Cameron responded by praising Harper and offering him the prospect of a return to the front bench "before too long".
In his formal reply, Cameron said he "enormously appreciated" Harper's loyalty. "It is typical of you that you should be so mindful of the wider interests of the Government and the party," he said.
The Immigration Bill, which Harper was steering through Parliament, is the centrepiece of the Government's entire law reform programme this year. It is seen as central to the Conservative Party's efforts to combat the political threat posed by Ukip, which has grown in popularity partly due to its uncompromising stance on immigration.
Harper championed measures in the Immigration Bill including a new requirement for private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants or face fines for letting property to illegal migrants. He was also responsible for the helpline for employers to telephone to check the immigration status of their employees. One of Mr Harper's most dramatic interventions was to order billboards to be driven around London on vans, which warned illegal migrants to "go home or face arrest", a tactic that infuriated Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister.
Harper, a former accountant and Oxford University graduate, also caused controversy when he berated a failed Iraqi asylum seeker in a live television appearance and told him to leave Britain. Harper told Esam Amin, a refugee rights campaigner: "When you were here claiming asylum, taxpayers supported you. You now have no right to be in the United Kingdom and you should return. "If people abuse our system, it will damage the British public's tolerance for people genuinely fleeing persecution."