Opinion

Bully-in-chief: the unrelenting Priti Patel

On 20 November, Boris Johnson refused to sack Priti Patel after a long-delayed report revealed that she broke the ministerial code – a set of rules penned by the Prime Minister himself. In his foreword to the code (written in August 2019), Johnson explicitly stated that ‘There must be no bullying or harassment’ within the party. The investigation into the allegations against Patel cleared her of the charge of the latter, but not the former. Sir Alex Allen, Whitehall’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, found that Patel’s behaviour did indeed constitute bullying.

As former treasury official, Nick Macpherson has noted in response to the investigation: ‘things have to be very bad indeed for a Cabinet Office enquiry to find fault in a minister – the system is rigged to conclude the contrary.’ It is, therefore, not unreasonable to assume the worst of Patel’s behaviour, making her both morally questionable and her department operationally incompetent. 

When faced with questioning last Wednesday, Johnson responded to the findings with characteristic integrity and precision, deflecting criticisms and arguing that Patel should just be allowed to get on with ‘delivering the people’s priorities.’ The two examples Mr Johnson provided were painfully on-brand for the Home Secretary: ‘more police on the street to fight crime’ and ‘a new Australian-style points-based immigration system.’ Priorities indeed. 

Johnson’s commitment to chumocracy has not gone without notice. Arriving at the astonishing realisation that his job as an ethics advisor was redundant under the Johnson regime, the long-serving Allen has resigned. The Prime Minister’s dedication to defending Patel is just another case of granting impunity for his favourites. Earlier this summer, Patel herself stressed the importance of ‘personal responsibility’ in relation to coronavirus restrictions; one should not break the law- the ‘covid code’. Conservatives have the sublime ability of stressing the importance of individual responsibility for everyone but themselves.  

Others, it must be said, have also stood firmly by Patel or at least rushed to her defence. Notably, Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson recently offered the erudite argument that the arch-Thatcherite was in fact too short to be a work-place bully. Whilst impressively managing to reach new heights of inanity in her journalistic career, Pearson has also inadvertently made the pertinent point that our current government seems to exist as a glorified playground. 

Yet, before questioning Priti Patel any further in the wake of this scandal, we should first confront any smidgeon of surprise that we may have in response to it. Such behaviour is entirely consistent with Patel’s political history, personal demeanour and future ambitions. Indeed, the reports of her mistreatment of civil servants pale in comparison to her career-long commitment to the role of a highly motivated and malevolent villain. 

Patel’s aforementioned immigration efforts serve as a particularly despicable example. Beyond the backwards, uncaring and ironically unpatriotic adoption of ‘the Australian system’, Patel has also worked tirelessly to shut down legal pathways to the UK for migrants, even after the Foreign Affairs Select Committee warned that more people could risk their lives by taking up the perilous Channel crossing. 

This past week, a letter written by a group of medical staff has criticised the appalling conditions of former army barracks in Kent and Pembrokeshire being used to house asylum seekers. The group charged that there is a significant lack of access to healthcare services and that the sites are not properly adhering to coronavirus regulations. Condemning the sites as ‘detention centres’, the letter also rightfully raises the issue of exacerbating trauma for those involved, many of whom have fled conflict in their native countries. 

Unfortunately, Patel’s plans for the festive period will not work to quell concerns. On 2 December, the Home Office is planning to deport up to fifty black Britons, many of whom have lived in the UK since childhood. As Zita Holbourne, co-founder of Black Activists Against Rising Cuts (BARAC UK), has noted, this decision is again acutely coldblooded in the context of a pandemic. The methods of removal will put the potential deportees at risk of catching the virus, with detention centres and long-haul travel (which includes being cuffed to an usher) being highly conducive to infection. The government will, however, make sure to employ selective caution- notably, in preventing families from saying goodbye to their loved ones. Choosing to completely disregard the lessons of the still-unresolved Windrush scandal, Patel seems intent on intensifying the ‘hostile environment’ policy she inherited from Theresa May. 

The government’s self-proclaimed ‘tough’ stance on immigration, led by Patel, also crucially operates (as it always does) as a distraction from its innumerable failings. Consistently raising border issues allows the government to create an ‘other’ to attack, appealing to the prejudice preceding and inflamed by the 2016 referendum, effectively brushing the nightmares of departmental malpractice, laughable leadership, the incompetent coronavirus response, and the escalating mess of a no-deal Brexit under the rug. Patel has dismissed those who oppose her immigration stance as ‘do-gooders’, leaving one to wonder what that makes her and her cronies. 

Such contemptible practices extend beyond her immigration policies. In 2017, she was fired from her position as International Development Secretary for conducting meetings with Israeli ministers and business leaders without notifying the then Prime Minister, Theresa May. Patel’s penchant for dodgy dealings reappeared last year when she was revealed to have been working for Viasat (a global communications firm that supplies products to the Ministry of Defence) for £1,000 an hour. When also considering her decision to vote against same-sex marriage in 2013, her decision to vote against the detention of pregnant women in immigration jails and her work as a spin-doctor for British American Tobacco to downplay its connection to the Burmese military dictatorship, Patel has proven underhand, dishonest, and scornful of pressing human rights issues. 

Remarkably, it seems Patel would also go further than to just make life miserable for those she holds in contempt. In a 2019 interview with Andrew Marr, she stated that she had ‘never in my time as a member of parliament been an advocate’ of capital punishment. ‘I am not pro it,’ she reiterated. However, whilst taking part in an episode of Question Time in 2011, she insistently declared: ‘I would actually support the reintroduction of capital punishment.’ Patel has been the MP for Witham since 2010.

Of course, opinions can change. The endlessly tricky application of empathy to political issues is that we must find the strength, in spite of past convictions, to encourage and welcome views that shift from the abhorrent to the progressive. But such a change of heart (a word used generously) appears doubtful in the case of the Home Secretary, and Patel’s expression of these ideas is indicative of her general carelessness and instinct for barbarity. Would one expect her to be leading the protest outside the slaughterhouse, or donning the hood of the executioner within it?  

Priti Patel is a highly dangerous force within British politics. She is not a fringe far-right activist or an embarrassingly persistent perennial candidate. She holds a position of power that is truly frightening; ravenously feeding off of the burgeoning culture war of mass hate and division, whilst hiding behind a vampirous cloak of bullshit euphemisms like ‘steely determination’ and ‘getting the job done’. She won’t resign. She won’t be fired. But she must be vehemently opposed by anyone with a conscience.