How Priti Patel Became the Most Divisive Politician in Britain

The embattled minister is the perfect politician for 2020's discordant politics.
March 3, 2020, 1:03pm
Priti Patel

Embattled Home Secretary Priti Patel is currently facing allegations – which she denies – of bullying.

Civil servants have spoken of Patel storming out of her office, asking, "Why is everyone so fucking useless?" The Home Office's top civil servant, Sir Philip Rutnam, has resigned and announced that he will sue for constructive dismissal after what he called a "vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign". In his statement, Rutnam noted that Patel "categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office", but added, "I regret I do not believe her." In a particularly grim revelation, it is alleged that one civil servant took an overdose of prescription medicine after one alleged incident.

It's unclear whether Patel's career will survive, though this isn't the first time she's been engulfed in a headline-grabbing scandal – and it seems she's likely to retain a good deal of support on the political right. Her straightforward black-and-white conservative worldview has won her many fans, and even these bullying revelations are being viewed by some as the latest culture war flash-point – the Brexit-loving, anti-migration Home Secretary being criticised by the elite, recalcitrant civil service.

Born in London in 1972, Patel's family is originally from Gujarat in India. Her paternal grandparents moved to Kampala in Uganda in the 1950s, where they ran a shop, then in the 60s her parents moved to Hertfordshire, where they opened a shop, then several more. She went to a comprehensive school, then Keele University for a degree in Economics, followed by a masters in British Government and Politics at the University of Essex.

This is her well-rehearsed story about how being brought up by hard-working immigrant parents who kept their heads down made her a Conservative (although her father Sushil decided to run as a councillor for UKIP in 2013, then tried to withdraw his candidacy when it became public, then realised it was too late for him to do so). She has repeatedly named Margaret Thatcher as her inspiration as a young woman – eight times during debates in the House of Commons alone.

After joining the Conservative Party at 18 she interned at the Conservative Central Office, left to work for the eurosceptic Referendum Party between 1995 and 1997 as a press officer, then went back to the Conservatives to do media for leader William Hague.

In 2000, she followed the well-trodden path of ambitious young Tories and went to the private sector, joining PR consulting outfit Weber Shandwick. In her three-year stint, she lobbied MEPs against the introduction of the EU tobacco control directive, and worked with British American Tobacco in Burma, where the company "helped fund one of the most brutal military dictatorships in the world". However, according to a memo written by then-BAT senior executive Andreas Vecchiet and published by the Observer, Patel seems to have been at ease in her role. "Priti [and another employee] seem quite relaxed working with us," wrote Vecchiet. In 2003, Patel moved to alcohol company Diageo, then went back to Weber Shandwick as a director in 2007.

Patel is nothing if not consistent. When she was selected for Witham in 2010, aged 34, she had already been a Conservative party member for 16 years and was the chair of the neighbouring Erith and Thamesmead Conservative association. She'd unsuccessfully stood in Nottingham North in 2005, then joined David Cameron's priority list of candidates, as the new leader wanted to see more diversity on his benches.

A Telegraph article about Tory women from 2002 describes Patel as a "headbanger who still listens to Metallica, The Black Crowes and Guns N' Roses on her 'mega stereo'". Asked if she likes the floral dresses usually beloved by her ilk, she shrieked "no!" and "instead [talked] lovingly about her frayed biker jacket and Doc Marten boots". There is little information about what her politics were like at the time, but she had spoken out about discrimination in the Conservatives in 2003 – "I think there are racist undertones and attitudes. Racist attitudes do persist within the party … There's a lot of bigotry around" – and complained about a party member wearing a Union Jack tie at a selection meeting.

While Patel's candidacy was supposed to be a victory for Cameron's liberal de-toxification of the Tories' "nasty party" image, the pitch she made to the Witham association was already firmly on the right: "We must send a clear signal to people that crime doesn't pay; the punishment must fit the crime, and yes, I do support capital punishment," she told the members. "For far too long the law has been on the side of the criminal. Law and order is breaking down in Britain and we must do something about it." (Asked to pick between hanging, the electric chair and other ways for the state to execute criminals, she conceded that she hadn't "thought through all the details".)

Following her selection as a candidate, she told the Mail on Sunday, "David Cameron is not doing enough to carry party members with him in terms of his style and approach." Asked about Europe, she said she wanted to "to see a Britain that is governed by the British for the British". The article was headlined "Restore the death penalty and never scrap the pound… says Priti Patel, the Asian woman 'Hug a Hoodie' Cameron was convinced would be his ideal A-list candidate". The glee at kicking back against Cameron was palpable.

Patel's pro-death penalty stance brought her notoriety a year later, when she appeared on Question Time. In one of the programme's more famous exchanges, Patel argues for "the reintroduction of capital punishment to serve as a deterrent", and is challenged on what happens in cases of miscarriages of justice ("It's not a deterrent, killing the wrong people," says Private Eye editor Ian Hislop). "The point I'm making is that to have capital punishment – that would act as a deterrent…" continues Patel, undeterred.

This was never going to be a problem for the hang-em-and-flog-em constituency Patel was by then appealing to. She remained a darling of the tabloids after getting elected, with Kelvin McKenzie merrily writing in the Mail in 2011 that "she doesn’t bend at the knee for the liberal intelligentsia at the top of the Conservative Party". Arch Tory MP David Amess told Total Politics a year later that "Priti would make a bloody marvellous home secretary; the country would know bad guys would be going away for a hell of a long time."

She made the news again a year later, when she and other MPs (including Liz Truss and Dominic Raab) published Britannia Unchained, a book championing radical free market economics. The book describes British workers as "among the worst idlers in the world" ("Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music"), and called on the country to learn lessons on business practices from countries like China and Singapore. Though controversial, the book did raise the profile of its authors – nearly all of whom are now in Johnson's cabinet – and Patel soon joined the ranks of the government.

Patel became a junior minister at the Treasury in 2014, then a minister of state at the DWP in 2015. She joined the Leave campaign in 2016 and compared Women for Leave to the suffragettes, then backed Theresa May after the referendum and became the secretary of state for international development.

Her greatest controversy, however, came in 2017, when she was found to have conducted a number of meetings with Israeli officials without telling the government, first while on a private holiday in Israel, then in Washington and London. Awkwardly for her, the story of her "freelance foreign policy" exploded as she was in Nairobi. Ordered to fly back in by No. 10, the plane she was on ended up being tracked by over 20,000 people in real time through Flight Radar.

She eventually resigned and slunk off to the back-benches. It didn’t look like there was an obvious way back until the summer of 2019, when Boris Johnson made her Home Secretary – and here she is, in a more senior position than she was in before.

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Priti Patel with a fry up. Image from Facebook

While she is something of a pariah in liberal and left-wing circles, there are a lot of people who really, really like Priti Patel. Many of them are on Facebook: one group, "We Love Priti Patel", calls itself a "Supporter group for the very smart, true Conservative, Priti Patel", and counts nearly 3,000 members.

Recent posts are a combination of members offering their support to Patel against bullying allegations, and simple appreciation posts; in one thread, fans were encouraged to share their favourite picture of her ("here's mine, tucking into a traditional ENGLISH breakfast… most iconic pic wins", said one).

Another group, "Rt Hon Priti Patel MP – UK Supporters Group", counts just under 2,000 members and "originally launched April, 2019 lobbying for Rt Hon Priti Patel MP to have a Senior Role in Government".

Originally feted by liberal-Conservative David Cameron, Patel now seems to attract fans from the further reaches of the right. Those who have come out to support her in recent weeks include hardcore Brexiteer think-tank The Bruges Group, and Gerard Batten, the former UKIP leader who took the party further to the right and hired ex-EDL leader Tommy Robinson as an advisor.

The right wing media has leapt to her defence, too. Spiked! published "in defence of Priti Patel" late last year, the Telegraph had its own "Priti Patel has upset the Home Office 'chapocracy'… bully for her!" last week, and so on.

In a way, this should not be a surprise: Priti Patel is the perfect politician for 2020. She picked a side, picked it early, hasn't left it – and it is unlikely she ever will.

We are living in a Manichean world, and Priti Patel is a Manichean girl: immigration is bad, the police are good; patriotism is good, Europe is bad. If she doesn’t get brought down by the unfolding Home Office scandal, she may well rise to the top of the Conservative party at some point.

Even if she does have to leave the Cabinet over it, it doesn't have to be the end – after all, it happened once before, and here we are again, just over two years later.

Maybe that's what you get for being one-dimensional: if your persona is paper thin, it’s easy for people to turn you into a poster girl.

@youngvulgarian / @liluglieboi