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4 March 2020

First Thoughts: The trouble with Priti Patel, crisis leadership and wildlife in Essex

Patel is an accident-prone minister. Johnson sent her to an accident-prone department. His fault.

By Peter Wilby

If a coronavirus epidemic has any upside, it is this: it may persuade the public that there is something to be said for putting serious people in power. No matter how hard he tries, Boris Johnson doesn’t look or sound like a man who can lead us through a crisis. When there’s big trouble, his instinct is to hide. We saw that when he was London mayor and initially stayed on holiday as riots spread across the capital. We saw it again last month when much of the country was flooded and Johnson was nowhere to be seen. 

Winston Churchill, supposedly Johnson’s hero and role model, never shirked the front line. He watched German bombing raids on London from a roof in Whitehall and often visited the East End the next day. George VI had to dissuade him from joining the troops in the D-Day landings. He again wanted to be with Allied troops as they crossed the Rhine in 1945. General Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, noted that “we had some difficulty in keeping him back”. The only difficulty anybody would have with Johnson is pushing him forward.

Morbid electoral strategies

Since I am in my mid-70s – an age group for which the mortality rate from coronavirus infection is 8 per cent – the epidemic causes anxious debate among my contemporaries. One suggests ministers will strive mightily to protect us because the over-70s overwhelmingly vote Tory. I take a less sanguine view. A high death rate among our age-group would ease the social care crisis. Moreover, if the elderly population fell by, say, 10 per cent (the coronavirus mortality rate is 15 per cent among the over-80s) the Treasury would save billions on retirement pensions and health spending. Younger people of working age could be wooed with tax cuts while also benefiting from substantial inheritances. This surge of prosperity would sweep the Tories back to power in 2024. 

The minefield

Priti Patel, assailed by allegations that she abuses civil servants, is not the first home secretary to come to grief. Since 1900, just three have subsequently made it to No 10 and only Theresa May got there directly from the Home Office. By contrast, ten chancellors and eight foreign secretaries have later become prime minister.

The Home Office is a political minefield. It covers areas – crime, terrorism, immigration, deportation – that arouse great passions but also involve decisions on innumerable individual cases. As Amber Rudd discovered in the Windrush scandal, when you respond to demands for tougher immigration controls, public sympathy often swings towards the victims. More than half a century earlier, Henry Brooke had similar experiences over the deportation of a young Jamaican shoplifter and the extradition of a Nigerian politician who had fled his country after a coup. Even Churchill’s 19 months as home secretary in 1910-11, during which he sent troops to quell riots in the Welsh coalfields, damaged his reputation.

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Patel – who allegedly drove an aide to attempt suicide at the Department for Work and Pensions and who had to resign as the international development secretary after unauthorised meetings with Israeli politicians – is an accident-prone minister. Johnson sent her to an accident-prone department. His fault.

The Only Way is Wildlife

Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, is to get a new image. Thanks to the reality TV series The Only Way is Essex, it is associated with fake tans and rowdy nightclubs. Now its tourism managers, pointing out that three-quarters of the county is countryside, want to highlight its wildlife, coastal walks and oyster festivals. “There’s a bit of snobbery towards Essex,” says a council official.

But perhaps Essex’s problem lies with its over-apologetic middle-class residents. In Scotland, my wife and I were once asked by a young woman where we were from. We told her. “I’m sorry,” we thought she said. She looked puzzled when we said we were sorry too. What she actually said, it transpired, was “I’m from Surrey”.

This article appears in the 04 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10