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20 November 2020

Boris Johnson’s decision to protect Priti Patel is a huge risk for everybody involved

The Prime Minister has chosen the Home Secretary’s political importance over her operational ability – despite her department holding millions of lives in its hands.

By Stephen Bush

The real case for Priti Patel is that she is politically indispensable to the Conservative Party, at least in its present form. She combines a number of vital qualities as far as Boris Johnson’s Downing Street is concerned: she is an impeccable Brexiteer, a committed authoritarian on law and order issues, a devoted immigration restrictionist, and she is from both an ethnic minority and an ordinary background.

No other person in the parliamentary party ticks all those boxes in quite the same way. The only other minister who comes close to doing so is James Cleverly, though he is privately educated and has never held full cabinet rank. All the other candidates fall short in one way or another: a little too posh, too liberal on either crime or immigration, etc. In my view, there is nothing significant that Patel buys the Conservative Party that Cleverly would not, but that doesn’t matter: that is not Downing Street’s view, and the Prime Minister has decided to do everything in his power to keep her.

That reality frees us from having to engage seriously with any of the explicit arguments being made for her retention as secretary of state, though it is worth briefly explaining the problem with them.

We have the “I have never found her to be anything other than courteous” line that is being taken by some Tory MPs. Responding to an allegation of bullying behaviour towards subordinates by saying that the person in question has never been unpleasant to you, a colleague, is like responding to someone saying they are allergic to nuts by saying that you watched them eat a whole carrot yesterday: it may be true, but it is not at all relevant.

We also have the “tough management is necessary to deliver the government’s agenda” claim. The pre-Patel Home Office delivered the hostile environment policy, the detention of young children, and a points-based immigration system for new arrivals outside of Europe. It is simply ridiculous to claim that the department needs to be prodded or pushed into delivering the government’s agenda. (Also, if true, it would suggest that the MPs advancing this line believe the other 20 cabinet ministers, who have not been the subject of a Cabinet Office inquiry, are failing to deliver on their briefs: a major statement for any MP to make about their own party!)

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There is evidently a problem with the Home Office’s responsiveness to political direction – not only does the published summary of the report into Patel’s behaviour acknowledge this, but the fact that the Windrush compensation scheme continues to be byzantine, hard to access and slow is in of itself an example of that. But it is hard, frankly, to declare that the problem of Home Office unresponsiveness results in greater liberalism.

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[See also: The slow, inaccessible Windrush compensation scheme is a moral failure]

Then we have the argument that keeping Priti Patel in office is fine, because the report declares her bullying to have been “unintentional”. I take an old-fashioned view here, which is that if you cannot operate in a high-pressure environment without inadvertently bullying your staff, you probably shouldn’t be in charge of the United Kingdom’s counter-terror response.

The real story of this report appears to be a department that has both internal difficulties and poor leadership on its political side. Yet there is no apparent plan from Downing Street to change either of these things.

And that is why its decision to put Patel’s political value ahead of this report may yet come back to bite No 10, because bad workplace behaviour is not simply a moral or a HR issue. It is also a product of incompetence and operational inability: in a department where those things have major and, in some cases, deadly consequences, there may be severe political consequences too.