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How Priti Patel became unsackable

By surviving an inquiry that concluded she bullied staff, the Home Secretary has proved her indispensability to Boris Johnson. Is she a future Tory leader?

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Nine months have passed since that rainy February day when Philip Rutnam, standing outside his north London home, announced that he was resigning as permanent secretary at the Home Office and suing Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, for constructive dismissal. He accused her of lying about her complicity in a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him, and of “shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands – behaviour that created fear”.

Five months have passed since Boris Johnson first heard the results of an official inquiry into those and several other bullying allegations levelled against Patel when she was employment minister, international development secretary and home secretary. Announcing that inquiry last March, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, told MPs it was “vital this investigation is concluded as quickly as possible in the interests of everyone involved”.

Only now has the Prime Minister seen fit to publish that report, or rather a brief summary of it. His officials allegedly denied Alex Allan, his independent adviser on ministerial standards, access to Rutnam. He tried and failed to persuade Allan to tone down the report, then triggered his resignation by ignoring its findings. Although the report concludes that Patel broke the ministerial code, Johnson refuses to sack her, arguing somewhat implausibly that her bullying was “unintentional”. 

What Johnson’s robust defence of Patel demonstrates is her political and symbolic importance to him and his administration. Driven, outspoken and forceful, she has risen from humble beginnings to become the most senior woman in his cabinet, and the first ethnic minority woman to occupy one of the four great offices of state.

She is charged with delivering two of Johnson’s key electoral pledges – restricting immigration and recruiting 20,000 extra police officers. She fights culture wars with relish. She is a fervent Brexiteer and Johnson loyalist – “my joke with her is she’s the only person in the cabinet who doesn’t think she’d do a better job than Boris”, a friend of hers told me. 

The unashamed Thatcherite is also a favourite of the Conservative Party faithful, Tory tabloids and blue-collar “Red Wall” voters. In short, it would have been almost as hard for the Prime Minister to sack Patel as it was for him to sack Cummings.

[see also: Boris Johnson’s decision to protect Priti Patel is a huge risk for everybody involved]

Like Cummings, however, Patel is a deeply divisive and polarising figure among the wider public. Her critics consider her a right-wing populist who panders to the mob, exploits problems instead of solving them, and shamelessly demonises illegal immigrants, “lefty lawyers” and “do-gooders” in order to advance her own political career. 

They regard her as an unworthy occupant of a post once held by figures such as Douglas Hurd, Roy Jenkins, William Whitelaw and, long ago, Winston Churchill. They have labelled her a “saloon bar fantasist”, a “modern-day Norman Tebbit” and “Pushy Patel”. 

Even her husband, a Tory councillor, allegedly calls his diminutive and combative wife his “personal piranha”.

***

Priti Patel is the daughter of Gujarati parents who fled, almost penniless, from Idi Amin’s Uganda to England shortly before he expelled all Asians from the country in 1972 – the year Patel was born.

Her father Sushil opened a corner shop in New Costessey, on the western edge of Norwich. Over time he acquired a chain of newsagents across south-east England. Patel was raised mostly in Hertfordshire, and attended a Watford comprehensive. In her youth, she has said, she was called a “Paki” in the playground and racially abused in the streets.

Her parents worked all hours and prospered. She helped in their shops – filling shelves, sorting newspapers, restocking at the cash and carry – and she inherited their work ethic. “That whole spirit of enterprise, entrepreneurship, is something I have been in tune with since, well, I was living it, growing up with it, basically. So that kind of hard-wired me to the Conservative Party,” she told an interviewer in 2011.

She adored Margaret Thatcher – another shopkeeper’s daughter. In her late teens Cecil Parkinson, the Tory cabinet minister who was her local MP, came into a shop where she was working and persuaded her to join the party. 

After studying economics at Keele, and politics at the University of Essex, she interned at Conservative Central Office in London before joining James Goldsmith’s Eurosceptic Referendum Party as its press officer in 1995.

Unlike Johnson, whose Euroscepticism has sometimes seemed opportunist, Patel’s runs deep. A key moment was the 1992 Black Wednesday crash when John Major’s government was forced to withdraw the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. “It hurt people,” she told the Daily Mail in 2016. “It cost them their jobs, lost their homes. My mum and dad were badly affected. They lost businesses. We were lucky to keep a roof over our heads.”

In 1997 Patel returned to the Tory fold as press officer for William Hague, the party’s new leader. “There were precious few non-white faces around,” a Hague associate told me. “The attraction of having a quite bright, quite presentable woman of Indian origin around was not such a silly idea.” 

It was a difficult period for Hague, but “Priti had a can-do attitude. She was cheerful, positive and never daunted,” Nick Wood, a press office colleague, recalled.

Three years later she joined Shandwick, the public relations firm, where she worked on the British American Tobacco (BAT) account. Among other things she lobbied against an EU tobacco control directive, and helped defend a BAT joint venture with Burma’s military regime, according to documents obtained by the Observer. Some of her colleagues were uncomfortable with the brief but Patel seemed “quite relaxed working with us”, a senior BAT executive said.

A decade later, as an MP, Patel voted to overturn the UK smoking ban and later led a Tory back-bench rebellion against plain packaging for cigarettes, saying it would kill off struggling newsagents and encourage counterfeit cigarettes.

In 2003 she moved to Diageo, the drinks company, and the following year married Alex Sawyer, a marketing consultant for the Nasdaq stock exchange, with whom she later had a son, Freddie. She also began seeking a parliamentary seat. “I got called for a lot of interviews, but I was almost making up the numbers. Because I’m a woman. I look a bit different. I’m called Patel,” she told the Times. She was even advised to drop “Patel” and adopt her husband’s surname, she said.

She was eventually selected to fight the safe Labour constituency of Nottingham North, and came a distant second to Graham Allen in the 2005 general election. The following year she stood for Bexley Council in south-east London and lost again, securing just 653 votes. Her husband, another ardent Thatcherite, did win a seat, garnering 1,806 votes, and remains a councillor today. 

Between 2014 and 2017, Patel employed him as her £25,000-a-year part-time office manager at Westminster even though he had two other paid jobs as a councillor and at Nasdaq. 

David Cameron set about “modernising” the Conservative Party after becoming its leader in 2005. Patel’s gender and ethnicity suddenly became an asset, though her associates insist she has always risen on merit. She was put on the “A-list” of Tory candidates and selected to fight Witham in Essex. In 2010 she won a majority of 15,196 to become the first female Conservative MP of Asian descent.

Arriving at Westminster, she told the Times: “I wasn’t elected to watch the paint dry... As a backbencher, rattling cages is what we should be doing.”

In 2011 she defied Cameron by voting for an EU referendum, and supported the death penalty for particularly abhorrent crimes during a notorious appearance on the BBC’s Question Time. Ian Hislop, the Private Eye editor, pointed out that innocent people were occasionally executed. Capital punishment was a deterrent, Patel retorted. “It’s not a deterrent killing the wrong people,” Hislop shot back. Patel, who seldom excels in media appearances, has since retreated from her support for the death penalty.

In 2012 she and four other ambitious young Tory MPs published Britannia Unchained, a Thatcherite tract championing turbo-charged free marketry as the cure for the UK’s ills. The British were “amongst the worst idlers in the world”, it said. Seven years later, shortly after Johnson’s famous row with Carrie Symonds in June 2019 during his Conservative leadership campaign, a copy of Britannia Unchained was spotted amid the discarded coffee cups on his car floor.

Patel has voted against equal marriage, tax increases and rises in welfare benefits, and for restricting legal aid. But despite her robust right-wing views she earned the respect of Gisela Stuart, the former Labour MP, whom she helped edit the House magazine and with whom she would later campaign for Brexit. “When faced with an obstacle people react in different ways,” Stuart told me. “Some people try to find a way round it. Some people try to ignore it. Give Priti an obstacle and she just goes for it.”

Stuart also remembers Patel lambasting her party whips after the government dropped plans to sell state-owned forests. “She could be quite scary... She told the whips exactly what she thought of them. I saw her coming out of their office still steaming.”

In the 2013 local elections Patel’s father stood as a Ukip candidate for Hertfordshire County Council. He won just 400 votes in his Bushey South ward, but his candidacy embarrassed the Tories. Nigel Farage, then Ukip’s leader, told me: “I showed just how deep-rooted within the Conservative movement leaving the EU had become, and it showed how all the narrative of Ukip being a racist organisation was for the media alone.”

Despite that, and despite the social and political distance between Patel and Cameron’s richer and more elitist Notting Hill set, the prime minister continued to support her. He appointed her to his Downing Street policy unit in 2013, and to a junior ministerial post at the Treasury in 2014. Following the Tories’ 2015 general election victory he made her employment minister, with a cabinet seat, under Iain Duncan Smith, another of her patrons.

“We were steadily ending the idea that the Tories weren’t open to talent, to women, to minorities,” Cameron wrote of her elevation in his memoirs. But Patel’s was an appointment he would, in time, bitterly regret.

Patel accompanied Cameron on trips to India, and got to know Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing nationalist prime minister. In November 2015 Modi visited Britain. In her recently published diaries Sasha Swire, wife of the then Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire, recalled: “Modi comes to town. Priti Patel has been inserting herself into this trip at every turn. As the PM’s leading Diaspora Champion she does have a role, but she is behaving like the Minister for India, which is actually what Hugo is. Sure enough she turns up at the VIP suite to greet Modi. She has done all the press that morning... and got herself invited to a small lunch with the Queen when we were told no ministers were invited.”

For all her evident ambition, Patel risked her career in 2016 when she and five other cabinet members joined the Vote Leave campaign during the EU referendum despite Cameron’s best efforts to dissuade her. 

She campaigned hard on the need to control immigration, her own background notwithstanding. She formed “Women for Britain” and was rebuked by Emmeline Pankhurst’s great-granddaughter for claiming its members were fighting for democratic freedom just as the Suffragettes did in the early 20th century. 

“She was a trooper, working hard, often behind the scenes to deliver the Take Back Control message. She does not obsess about getting the limelight,” Nick Wood, another Leave campaigner, told me.

But Patel, who was still a cabinet member, infuriated Nicky Morgan, the Remain-supporting education secretary, by blaming immigration for a shortage of school places on the day parents learned whether their children had secured the primary schools of their choice.

“Very disappointed to see you’ve decided to reinforce Labour’s attack on primary paid provision in aid of your Brexit campaign,” Morgan texted her. “Labour’s attack is on government policy and approach, including funding. My point is one we and the party have made on migration and pressures on public services,” Patel replied. “I’m afraid the press and commentariat are not making that distinction,” Morgan retorted. 

According to All Out War (2016), journalist Tim Shipman’s account of the Brexit referendum, “Priti was hauled in (to No 10) and bollocked.”

Reflecting on the referendum, Cameron wrote in his memoirs: “It was the behaviour of Priti Patel that probably shocked me most... she wrote an article for the Telegraph critical of the 'wealthy' leaders of Remain, who could never know the downsides of immigration. She explicitly criticised the Conservative manifesto (on which she had been elected) and the cabinet (of which she was a part). She subsequently used every announcement, interview and speech to hammer the government over immigration, even though she was part of that government. I was stuck, though: unable to fire her because that would make her a Brexit martyr.”

Following Leave’s victory and Cameron’s resignation Patel backed Theresa May for the party leadership, and was rewarded with the Department for International Development (Dfid). It was an odd appointment because Patel had previously supported Dfid’s abolition. Moreover, as a senior Conservative put it: “She ideologically doesn’t like foreigners and giving money to the poor.”

Patel took office promising value for money, and to use Britain’s £11bn foreign aid budget as leverage to secure trade deals. One insider said that far from defending her department, she would leak unfair stories of its alleged wastefulness to tabloids “to make Dfid seem a crazy madhouse and herself as a new broom cleaning it up”.

In a rabble-rousing address to the Conservatives’ annual conference in 2017, Patel told a party faithful sceptical of foreign aid that she had “scrutinised every aspect of Dfid’s spending” and “removed programmes which did not stand up to scrutiny. Where partnerships weren’t working, I have ended them. Where legitimate concerns have been raised over poor spending, I have taken action... I am not here to endlessly hand out money”. She promised to end “the appalling practice of fat cats profiteering from the aid budget” and the “crony-market where a handful of suppliers win contract after contract”.

Others who worked at Dfid do not remember her tenure quite like that. “It was largely rhetorical. She didn’t have the skill-set or ability to find waste,” said one. “She didn’t follow through on her rhetoric,” said another. She was tough on spending, and wanted aid delivered in a Union flag, but “had the honesty to realise what was being done was good and stick with it”.

Patel did seek to cut funding to Palestinians in the occupied territories, but within a month of delivering that conference speech her ardent support for Israel caused her downfall.

The BBC discovered that she and Stuart Polak, honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel pressure group, had met Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and other government officials in Israel without telling the Foreign Office. May reprimanded Patel, but days later it emerged that Patel had had other undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials in London and New York. This time the furious prime minister very publicly recalled Patel from an official trip to Kenya and fired her.

Patel’s supporters ascribe her transgression to naivety, but one senior Tory told me: “If she was going to be a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, having a strong body of support from those [in the Jewish community] who would be donors and supporters is probably not a bad thing.”

Dfid was not sorry to see her go. “By and large the stories [about her bullying] are true. She fits the classic pattern of those above her and those who are equal being treated well, and those below are not,” one source told me. Another said: “I’ve seen her be incredibly short with staff. I’ve seen her shout at them: ‘Why’s that letter not ready?’ Why haven’t I been told about this?’.” A third saw no bullying, but said she could be “aggressive when she felt insecure or unable to master a brief”.

Patel spent 19 months on the back benches. She was a “Spartan” – a leading member of the European Research Group which was pressing for a hard Brexit, and grew closer to Johnson, who had resigned as foreign secretary over May’s ill-fated “Chequers deal” on Brexit.

***

Then, in July 2019, Johnson replaced May as prime minister. He immediately appointed Patel Home Secretary, to the dismay of many liberals, and in the 16 months since she has proved every bit as hardline as they feared.

She has unveiled a points-based immigration system to take effect immediately after the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December. She told the 2019 Conservative conference the government would end the free movement of people "once and for all”, welcome only “the brightest and the best”, and restore the government’s control over Britain’s borders. “This daughter of immigrants needs no lectures from the North London metropolitan liberal elite,” she added.

Critics counter that the new system will cause severe labour shortages in care, health and other key sectors by excluding low-paid workers, and curb the economic dynamism that immigrants like her parents have brought to Britain. They argue that Patel’s parents would have been denied entry to the UK under it.

[see also: Points-based immigration system will further pressure NHS during coronavirus crisis]

In another provocative speech at this year’s Tory conference, held virtually, Patel promised to fix Britain’s “fundamentally broken” asylum system, and decried “the traffickers, the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers, the Labour Party” who defend it. 

The Law Society and Bar Council have complained that her inflammatory language inspired a knife attack  last September on a London solicitor dealing with immigration cases, and more than 800 former judges and senior legal figures wrote to the Guardian last month to say she and Johnson were endangering lawyers’ safety and undermining the rule of law with their inflammatory language.

As yet, Patel has failed to prevent illegal immigrants crossing the Channel in rickety boats, but she plans to introduce legislation next year to crack down on those whom she describes as "lining the pockets of despicable international criminal gangs” and “elbowing aside” the genuinely vulnerable. To deter them the Home Office has been considering ideas ranging from wave machines to repel immigrant vessels to processing centres on disused ferries or Ascension Island. It would also limit their appeals against deportation.

Patel’s opponents accuse her of seeking to erect a “Trumpian wall” against the persecuted and oppressed. They argue that it is extremely hard to gain asylum in Britain legally, and that the numbers seeking to enter illegally are very small despite the sensational headlines. 

Judith Dennis, policy manager at the Refugee Council, told me: “The asylum system needs reform, but it’s far from broken... It’s highly irresponsible to paint the present situation as a national emergency.” Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, added: “With her words (Patel) seeks to divide when she should seek to unite.”

Patel’s hard line on asylum and immigration is matched by her stance on law and order, though she did support the government’s willingness to break the law to avoid a post-Brexit border in the Irish Sea. She also attracted some mockery by bragging that shoplifting and burglaries fell during the lockdown earlier this year.

She told the Daily Mail last year she wanted criminals to “literally feel terror”. Post-Brexit, she intends to ban EU citizens who have been sentenced to more than a year in prison from entering Britain. She displayed little sympathy for last spring’s Black Lives Matter protests, calling the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston “utterly disgraceful”. 

A former colleague of Patel’s told me: “She is robust, not fearful, resilient, fiercely patriotic as many immigrants are, especially Asians of her background, and she thinks Britain is special. She is the last one to take the knee or run down the empire.”

She has also done much to strengthen the police. She has already recruited a quarter of the 20,000 extra officers Johnson promised in last December’s election, albeit by lowering the recruitment age to 17. She is giving them more tasers, and lifting restrictions on their use of stop-and-search. She has raised their pay above inflation and promised a "Police Covenant" to recognise their “service and sacrifice”.

“We stand against the criminals, the gang leaders, drug barons, thugs and terrorists who seek to do us harm. We say that proudly and without apology,” she told the 2019 Conservative party conference, though it would be surprising if a Home Secretary stood for anything else. 

The police are delighted. “It’s been a refreshing change for my colleagues to hear a Home Secretary talk with passion about her admiration, support and respect for rank-and-file police officers,” John Apter, chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, told me.

***

Patel refused to be interviewed for this article, but she told Glamour magazine recently that she is attacked “because I don’t conform to stereotypes of what an Asian politician or an Asian woman should stand for in politics”.

Her supporters told me the charge that she lacks empathy and compassion is “bullshit”. They insist that behind her tough public persona she is a “warm and caring person” with a sense of humour, who is solicitous of her staff, gives them Christmas presents and asks after their families. “I’ve never seen anything that even resembles bullying,” said one. “Yes, she drives and demands high standards, but there’s a big difference between that and bullying,” said another.

They say she cares deeply about victims of crime, and has privately visited mothers of young men killed in knifings and someone targeted by a Somali rapist who had thwarted attempts to deport him from the UK. Shortly before last Christmas she visited the family of Harry Dunn, the young man killed by an American driver outside a US Air Force base in Northamptonshire. The 90-minute meeting ended with hugs.

They say she works extremely hard, arriving at her office by 8.00am and often reading official papers until 1.00am – her only indulgence being occasional visits to race meetings, Arsenal football matches and Lords (she paid £45,000 to become an MCC life member last month). And they argue that “while she’s to the right of the country on many issues, on law and order and immigration she’s bang-centre of the population”.

A close associate insists that Patel has no ambition to become Britain’s first ethnic minority prime minister. “If she could do another job she’d rather be chancellor than prime minister,” he said.

Few believe that – this week’s bullying report notwithstanding. “She’s always seen herself as a future leader,” a former Tory cabinet minister of centrist persuasion told me. She has cultivated the support of Asian, Jewish and other big party donors like Jon Moynihan, Peter Cruddas and the Bamford family. She and Michael Gove were the only cabinet ministers invited to Rupert Murdoch’s wedding to Jerry Hall. She is a good glad-handler, and has an appeal to those grass-roots Tory members who pick the leader that Johnson’s more rarefied heir apparent, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, may lack.

“I don’t think it’s preposterous,” the former minister said of the idea that Patel could eventually become party leader. “If Priti can appeal to the party faithful as an anti-immigration, tough-on-law-and-order candidate, and do it with a winsome smile, she could have a strong chance.” 

But, he added: “It affronts and offends me that someone like her can be a senior politician... She’s jolly, but fundamentally dim, mediocre, insecure and out of her depth in any of the roles she occupies.”

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

This article appears in the 27 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump