20 November 2020

Sitting Priti: the PM is right to stand by his Home Secretary

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It’s been a day of high drama at Westminster, the kind that gets all the insiders het up about and which can make or break careers, but which most people will only notice in a quick news report at the end of the day.

It is one that is worth knowing though. Priti Patel has apologised for behaviour that has ‘upset’ ex-colleagues at the Home Office. The Prime Minister, in his role as final arbiter, has decided that Patel has not breached the ministerial code. His special adviser on standards, Alex Allen, has resigned. Insiders have known that negative briefings have been going on for months against Patel and they’ve ramped up today in response to this story.

I am no natural ally of the Home Office or anyone that holds the post of Home Secretary. As someone who wants to see the barriers businesses face getting the talent they need into the country fall, who supports the rights of asylum seekers to work, who campaigns for drug policy reform, and who thinks the online harms proposals would severely curtail online freedoms, I find the whole department horrifying.

We should set the tale today to scale. Priti Patel was accused of bullying. The question was whether her conduct made her unfit for high office.

Patel would be the first to admit that she is forthright — she does not bend her objectives or her principles to suit the style of a bureaucracy that has failed in multiple decades to deliver policies that people have voted for time and again.

The report into Patel’s conduct it makes clear that she has not harassed staff at the Home Office, and that while behaviours could amount to bullying, no feedback was ever given to the Home Secretary in order that she might modify her behaviour. No chance of growth and change, of redemption or reaction. Just a trial in the court of public opinion – one that a public figure is always liable to lose.

Meanwhile, the same report finds since this process began she has changed her approach, and that this is a positive. The Prime Minister’s decisions to support her therefore comes with a rather large proviso. Do you think that justice is there to provide retribution or to provide rehabilitation? In a liberal democracy, where the Prime Minister is the arbiter of her position and the voters of his, and where her actions have improved under scrutiny, there is a good and honest case to keep her in place. The system has worked.

A lot of the screw-ups out of the Home Office come from the fact that the department is aloof and a law unto itself. It treats ministers and democracy as inconveniences, the people it polices as pests. There is a long list of politicians snared into that lair that have been undone by acts of officials that were plain wrong that they then lay at the feet of their superiors. It says it controls borders but has no count of those that come legally, let alone illegally. It harasses legitimate employers and long-term residents and yet fails to provide ways to get criminals out of our country, or the ability to stop smugglers abusing our borders.

The vultures circling have seen today as a marker of a feast in store. It is a grim sight to behold. I am reminded of the latest season of The Crown. Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter, against stuffy grey haired men of a certain class that would see her fall and manage decline against the wishes of their voters. Priti Patel, the newsagent’s daughter, has found herself up against a certain class again that has never accepted a woman of her background getting on and has spent decades dismissing voters’ concerns in favour of their own wills.

She is the most dangerous woman in the Cabinet for jealous competitors, not because of her temperament, but because she gets modern Britain and in many ways personifies it. There’s a reason she’s consistently at the top of ConHome’s Cabinet ratings with a net satisfaction of over 50 points.

Spare me the sanctimony from Labour. Spare me the brazen two-facedness of Keir Starmer, who has watched as Corbyn was unsuspended from his party, a man he pushed as a potential Prime Minister last year and under whom Jewish Labour MPs were hounded mercilessly with anti-Semitic tropes by trolls to the point of leaving the party altogether. Spare me Gordon Brown’s PPS and now Labour Lord Angela Smith retweeting out how bullying allegations raise questions of the Prime Minister’s judgement. Let’s not forget the same people twittering away today about Priti were last year defending John Bercow against far more serious bullying allegations. Collective amnesia is catching.

Yes, Priti Patel has bitten off a task that might be more than she can chew and I’m sure she is a demanding boss, but the task needs delivering and voters are fed up of waiting. They want the new police officers she’s delivering and they want them on their streets now. They wanted control over migration returned and she’s done that too with a new Act delivered, while some colleagues struggle to get their policies over the line.

Priti is direct, in her own words, but the voters like it and the party does too. Boris is right to give her a chance to grow, to build back better, and deliver the promises she’s made to the British people.

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Matt Kilcoyne is the Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.