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23 July 2021

How much political danger is Priti Patel in?

The Police Federation’s declaration of no confidence and the migrant Channel crossings are significant threats to the Home Secretary’s authority.

By Stephen Bush

The Police Federation has declared that it has no confidence in the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, capping off an increasingly difficult week for the Witham MP. 

On the one hand, there is the running sore of the migrant Channel crossings. No topic causes greater anxiety among Conservatives – both inside and outside government, they fear the perception that the government is not “in control” of its borders will help spark the revival of a Farage-led or Farage-inspired political party, with dire consequences for the Tories’ electoral prospects, or that Labour will find some way of turning the issue to its advantage again. On the other hand, you have the Police Federation’s anger over the pay freeze announced for officers.  

The reason why Boris Johnson made Patel Home Secretary, and part of the reason why she is held in high esteem by Conservative MPs, is that she managed to repair the relationship between the government and the police after the Theresa May era, in which May oversaw both swingeing cuts to the police and a far-reaching programme of reform to how they operate. Rightly or wrongly, most Tory MPs think that Patel was a key ingredient of their electoral success in 2019. 

[see also: How Priti Patel became unsackable]

Both this week’s Home Office rows strike right to the heart of the Patel formula. Now, in the short term, the Home Secretary has nothing to worry about: there really is no one quite like Priti Patel on the government benches, Johnson would not be able to find a like-for-like replacement, and in any case, she is popular among Tory MPs, and not just for political reasons. She is good at the meat-and-drink of cultivating a parliamentary following: taking the time to get to know MPs, sending them notes of thanks, and all of the usual tricks of the trade.  

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In the long term, however, the rows are worrying for the Home Secretary and the government as a whole. The row with the Police Federation is a consequence of the very painful Budget that Rishi Sunak has planned. Big spending cuts and big political rows over them are going to become an ever larger feature of politics as this parliament wears on.  

But Patel’s allies are right to fear that the Channel crossings pose a real threat to her politically, too. Ultimately, the reason why we have more Channel crossings is an increasingly destructive global climate, creating a world on the move. The British Home Secretary cannot really “control” that, and the big lie of recent years is that you somehow can. It may be that the failure to prevent Channel crossings actually benefits the Conservatives, by providing a constant backdrop of helpful headlines about people in boats that allows them to fight the next election on immigration and border control. But it could also mean that the government acquires a reputation for mouthy powerlessness: for being keen to talk about “tough” measures, but unable to implement them or to keep its promises on this or any other topic for that matter.

[see also: As the Mediterranean’s migrant tragedy deepens, Europe looks away]