How Priti Patel Became Queen of the Authoritarian Right

Questions of police brutality have put the Home Secretary's politics under increased scrutiny in the last month – but her record shows a much longer history of ruthlessness.

It’s been a busy month for Priti Patel. Earlier last week, the Home Secretary released a ‘New Plan for Immigration’, which included proposals for asylum seekers to be indefinitely liable for removal as part of a ‘firm but fair’ asylum system – something which to many will feel like a disquieting oxymoron.

On Friday, the Byline Times revealed strange expenses filed by the Home Office, including £77,000 spent at a beauty firm (which also sold PPE), £5,000 in Primark, £2,000 at an Albanian electronics store and £1,000 spent at a garden centre. Officials later clarified that the £5,000 spent in Primark went on clothes for refugees, showing a surprising level of care for a department that previously suggested sending asylum seekers to a volcanic island.

Few people’s careers have the same resilience as Priti Patel’s. Her journey to one of the highest offices of state has survived a forced resignation and the ‘extreme concern’ voiced by charities over her human rights record, particularly after she flew the flag for capital punishment back in 2011 (a claim she now denies). But despite what we might like to think about British liberalism, the conclusion is that Patel’s rise has been bolstered by her ruthlessness.

So far, much of this has been trained on the ‘economically inactive’. As co-author of Britannia Unchained, a book that denounces British workers as ‘among the worst idlers in the world’ (ironic given that we work some of the longest hours in Europe), the Home Secretary’s contempt for those deemed ‘unskilled’ is palpable. The book’s authors argue that welfare payments ‘reward laziness’, and Patel calls for cuts to a ‘bloated public sector’, a comment that aligns with her belief that widespread poverty is not the fault of the government.

There’s a global precedent here. In 2015, the Guardian revealed that Priti Patel was part of a team of spin doctors that helped tobacco giant BAT deflect negative publicity after it came out that the firm jointly owned a factory in Myanmar which paid workers the equivalent of £15 a month. Also an ally of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Patel’s casual support for right-wing authoritarianism worldwide is a recurring feature of her political career. And it’s a quality she seeks to reproduce in British politics: in 2019, Patel proposed that the threat of food shortages should be used to force the Irish government to comply with Brexit plans.

Frequently championed as a symbol of diversity, Patel, the first female Conservative MP of Asian descent, often uses the fact her parents were immigrants as evidence of the value she places on freedom and equality. Having previously said that she will take ‘no lecture from Labour on racism’, her speech at the Tories’ 2020 Conference declared that Britain ‘always will provide sanctuary when the lights are being switched off on people’s liberties’.

Apparently, her personal vision of that sanctuary encompasses crowding refugees into unsafe, Covid-ridden barracks, on the basis that better conditions would ‘undermine confidence in the system’; the Home Office, meanwhile, says it is ‘collapsing‘ under the backlog of asylum claims. The system has been described as ‘broken’, with the application process taking longer and longer and those waiting expected to survive on about £5 per day.

This lack of empathy on asylum is, one assumes, part of a trade-off for the optics of strength on other issues like terrorism. But the Home Secretary has been rumoured to not be trusted by intelligence officials on matters of national security: having repeatedly confused the difference between ‘terrorism’ and ‘counter-terrorism’, Patel assures us that she is committed to combatting the latter. In press conferences, her habit of prefacing a statement with the phrase ‘let me be clear’ ensures that what follows is anything but.

Last year, a Cabinet Office report noted claims that Patel had shouted and sworn at staff, thereby breaching the ministerial code. One official collapsed after a row. Here came the invention of a new term, ‘unintentional bullying’, which shrugged off any accountability almost as effectively as the non-apology made to key workers facing shortages of PPE at the start of the Covid outbreak: ‘Sorry if you feel that there were failings.’

The official record makes clear that there certainly were failings: Whitehall sources said Sir Philip Rutnam, a former permanent secretary in the Home Office, received a £340,000 settlement after threatening to take the Home Secretary to tribunal. In 2019, it was alleged that Patel broke ministerial code for the second time by serving as an advisor for Viasat, a firm that supplies products and services to the UK government – a role in which she earned £1,000 an hour.

Patel’s authoritarian tendencies have been the subject of rising scrutiny over the last fortnight as a result of their presence in the newly drafted Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which sees anything that constitutes ‘serious annoyance’—a term subject to definition by the Home Secretary herself—made subject to criminal penalties and a potential ten-year jail sentence. Put simply, to protest against Priti Patel, you’ll probably need permission from Priti Patel.

The likelihood of that seems minimal given her disdain for dissent. The protesters in Bristol last week were designated ‘thugs’ intent on ‘causing trouble’; the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 were ‘dreadful’. Those who act against the government’s policies are dismissed as ‘activist lawyers’ and ‘do-gooders’ – rhetoric which some say responsible for a knifeman threatening to kill a solicitor in October last year.

Patel continues to offer a masterclass in evading accountability, making her well at home in a ‘cabinet for modern Britain’ comprised of the corrupt, the incompetent, and the vain. Power insulates from consequence, and ‘the Prittster’ is no exception: scandal after scandal may break, but she and her colleagues, it seems, aren’t going anywhere.