Priti Patel: Right-Wing Zealot

Commentators have hailed Priti Patel as part of Boris Johnson's 'modern cabinet.' But her politics are driven by nostalgia for the very worst of the Thatcher era.

Boris Johnson began his premiership by promising a “cabinet for modern Britain.” The narrative rests particularly on the appointment of BAME MPs to two of the great offices of state. It was a soundbite that was quickly recycled by Westminster journalists—but in the case of Priti Patel in particular, the new Home Secretary, couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Iain Duncan Smith told Radio 4’s Today Patel represents the “changing nature of Britain” because “she’s a woman, she’s come from the Indian subcontinent.” Leaving the fact that Priti Patel was actually born in Harrow to Ugandan-Indian parents, the first British-Asian woman to become Home Secretary can be regarded as a moment in history.

But that’s where ‘modern’ ends. Priti Patel’s views have included bringing back hanging, slashing welfare and blaming ‘lazy’ workers for Britain’s ills. Patel’s appointment might be framed around modern Britain, but she herself wants nothing so much as a return to the 1980s—and many of her views would have been backward even then.

Priti Patel as Home Secretary is a sign that Boris Johnson’s new political coalition will rest heavily on a group who saw themselves as neo-Thatcherite and thought Cameron—for all his imposition of austerity—was just too soft. 

Patel herself was one of five authors of the 2012 book Britannia Unchained. This was an attempt to shift Cameron’s conservative led-government sharply to the right, and ‘unchain’ Britain from regulations, rules and social spending. Patel and her co-authors argued Britain suffered from a “diminished work ethic and a culture of excuses,” with her new colleague as Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, describing British workers “among the worst idlers in the world”.  

Welfare payments “reward laziness,” the book argued, and should be slashed. Patel called for deep cuts in a “large bloated public sector” and the“generous welfare state” which was full of “perks” that were “lavished” on the population. Whatever welfare state she imagines we live in, it bears little resemblance to the reality of benefit sanctions, work capability assessments and service cuts.  

But Patel and her co-authors were keen supporters of each of these policies, reflecting their deep nostalgia about Thatcher’s 1980s. Their book declares “all five authors” grew up in the 1980s, “a period where Britain was improving.” Almost every Tory will support the free market, anti-worker reforms Thatcher made. But some, like Patel, think Thatcher’s work is unfinished. Even after her premiership the UK still has a “bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation.” They want to mimick Thatcher and be this generation’s warriors hacking their way through the state and red tape. 

Patel was still an ardent Thatcherite when she spoke at the 2017 Tory conference. Then a Development Secretary, she attended an ‘in conversation’ event with Mark Littlewood, director of the right-wing Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). Littlewood asked if she agreed public spending should be slashed from  around 40% of GDP down to around 20% of GDP. Patel avoided the figures, but agreed “high” spending was driven by “the expectations of the British electorate.” Patel argued “we are promising a whole range of things to the electorate which you know today may not be sustainable. In fact which clearly aren’t going to be sustainable in five, ten, fifteen, twenty years time.”

Patel’s 2012 Britannia Unchained movement failed. The Tory right-wing could not turn Cameron and Osborne’s austerity into an even more brutal frenzy of punishment for the poor. So, they turned increasingly to Brexit, hoping a break with the EU would give them an opportunity to slash and burn the welfare state. 

Boris Johnson has formed a solidly Leave administration and has brought not just Patel, but four more Britannia Unchained members into government, with roles for Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng. Seven years on from their manifesto, they appear to finally have the opportunity to bring it to realisation.  

Patel likes ‘free market’ slogans, but as we know deregulation and privatisation tend to go hand-in-hand with crony capitalism. Before she became an MP Patel shuttled between jobs with the Conservative Party and lobbying and PR firm Weber Shandwick. At Weber Shandwick, she represented British American Tobacco as the firm wrestled with bad headlines about their cosy relationships with Burma’s military government and the Sheikhdom of Bahrain. A promising record for a Home Secretary, responsible for upholding human and civil rights in this country. 

We have an idea what kind of Home Secretary Patel will be. Throughout her career she has pushed rightwards on ‘law and order.’ In 2011 she told BBC’s Question Time “I would actually support the reintroduction of capital punishment to serve as a deterrent,” brushing aside whether innocent people could be hung. In 2016 Patel said she no longer believed in hanging. She has, she says, moderated her views. But her authoritarian leanings, posturing on crime and hawkishness on immigration mark her out as one of the most hardline of Boris Johnson’s cabinet.

But there is no guarantee it all goes smoothly. Johnson and Javid are likely to want to introduce some ‘liberal’ measures to take the edge off their administration. Patel, meanwhile, has shown she is more interested in her own right-wing agenda than government discipline. In 2017 Patel had to resign as Theresa May’s Development Secretary because she was running her own foreign policy initiative, without telling the Foreign Office. 

While on holiday, Patel held several secret meetings with Israeli politicians to discuss diverting Britain’s aid budget to the Israeli military in the Golan Heights, an annexed territory formally unrecognised by Britain. She had already tried to push the Department for International Development away from offering economic support to Palestinians. 

Contrary to the narrative about ‘modern Britain,’ Priti Patel’s appointment demonstrates the degree to which Boris wants the ideologues of the right in his government. Whether he can control them is another question entirely.