Of all the appointments Boris Johnson has made to his first Cabinet, few have been the source of quite as much controversy – and derision – as that of Priti Patel, the new Home Secretary.
Not only has the appointment of the former International Development Secretary, who quit in disgrace over secret meetings with the Israeli government in 2017, raised serious concerns among some Tories who disagree with her militancy on Brexit – she was, after all, one of only 28 Eurosceptics to vote against the withdrawal agreement three times – but also because of her reputation for hardline positions on law and order.
Labour have made much hay out of her previous support for the death penalty – a position she resiled from in 2016 but is nonetheless still dogged by. If there is one appointment that speaks to the likelihood that Johnson’s administration will repel socially liberal voters and Remainers, then it is almost certainly that of Patel.
But what will her appointment mean for the Home Office, a department that has spent the past year mired in controversy over the Windrush scandal, its handling of the settled status scheme for EU citizens and rising knife crime?
In his inaugural speech on the steps of Downing Street, Johnson promised to increase police numbers by 20,000. The following day, in his first statement to the House of Commons, he suggested he would fight knife crime by increasing police stop and search powers. The politics of both will be tricky enough, but implementing – and paying for – policy changes while keeping the police onside is a big ask at a department as big and dysfunctional as the Home Office, whose budget has been cut by nearly a quarter since 2010.
But in Patel he will have a Home Secretary who will be more than willing to pursue the sort of tough line he is sketching out. Earlier this year she called for knife offenders to be given longer sentences and denied early release. Her authoritarian disposition sets up a potential clash with Robert Buckland, the one-time Remainer just promoted to Justice Secretary. His predecessor, David Gauke, had been a liberalising influence, and Buckland’s politics are cut from similar cloth.
As far as the really big political priority of Johnson’s administration is concerned – Brexit – Patel’s most important job will be to help devise and implement a post-Brexit migration regime, or rather rebrand the existing points-based regime for non-EU migrants along the lines that Vote Leave sold it in 2016: an Australian-style system. As the daughter of Ugandan Asian immigrants, Patel is the ideal saleswoman – a role which she played in the referendum campaign, and will doubtless play in an election not too far in the future.