Talk to many Tory MPs, particularly those in marginal seats, whether gained in 2019, 2017, 2015 or 2010, and they’ll tell you they think that Priti Patel was integral to the party’s revival in 2019. They credit her with rebuilding and re-establishing the Conservatives’ lead on crime and antisocial behaviour, without which they would not have been able to fight the 2019 election on a Brexit platform without being sucked into a fight over the condition of the UK’s public services – as they were in 2017.
But talk to activists at this conference – or ask them for a show of hands as the Spectator did at its live podcast – and it’s clear that Patel’s star is currently on the wane among the party rank and file. And no wonder: Rishi Sunak, the second-place choice of the Spectator’s audience, has wowed the electorate as a whole, while the first-placed choice Liz Truss has been the minister delivering good news stories for the right at the Department for International Trade, and has carried the afterglow of those successes into the Foreign Office. And Michael Gove, the third-placed choice, has a reputation for delivering change at every department he’s been at.
The central reason why Patel’s stock is not as high as it once was among Conservative activists is the perception that her department is failing: that she is unable to prevent more people coming here on boats in search of a better life, that we have de facto decriminalised most crimes other than murder and speeding, that the Metropolitan Police is poorly run, and so on.
Now the wheel of politics has plenty of turns, and it’s possible that this time next year we’re once again talking about how much activists and MPs love Priti Patel. But the concern among some MPs who believe – rightly, in my view – that Patel was integral to their 2019 re-election is that the fall in the Home Secretary’s stock among party activists is the first sign that the government’s advantage as far as crime and security is concerned might once again be about to come under serious threat.