What would it take for the government to part ways with Priti Patel? The Home Secretary has denied a third set of bullying allegations, which has been reported by the Sun and by Newsnight: this time during her time at the Department for International Department.
But as I said on Newsnight on Monday evening, Patel’s great strength remains that there is no one in the parliamentary party who so embodies everything that the government is trying to do. She is a committed authoritarian on crime and committed, too, to the government’s new approach on immigration. More importantly, she is known by journalists to be committed and that has been transmitted to voters. She’s a long-time Leaver from an ordinary middle-class British Asian background – and one of the neglected parts of the government’s success in December was winning votes among that group.
Electorally, there is no one quite like Patel in the Conservative Party. And bluntly, I doubt that allegations of bullying are that bad a look, politically speaking, when your political appeal is based on the idea that you are a hard-as-nails Home Secretary who tells it like it is. Some of those who like Patel will believe her denials: others who like her won’t but will take the allegations as proof that she is the Home Secretary for them.
The government did an excellent job on Monday of mobilising Conservative MPs, on Twitter and in the House of Commons, to circle the wagons. Tory MPs well understand the political appeal of Patel but they do have doubts about her competence. That they have been forced to publicly defend her makes it harder for them to turn around and demand a change if more allegations surface. (As Katy Balls explains well in her i column today, those doubts are also shared in Downing Street.)
But the bullying allegations are also allegations of incompetent people-management: a bullied team is not a team functioning at peak efficiency. And the only way I can see that Downing Street might have to part ways with its most valuable minister is if the investigation into the allegations reveal not only further complaints, but signs of operational incompetence.