Priti Patel, profile: Tory 'robot' poised for anti-EU reboot

Seemingly programmed to voice the party line, the employment minister looks set to defy her coding to champion Brexit

The Holy Grail in the world of artificial intelligence is success in something called the Turing Test. A computer must, over the course of a short text-based conversation, hoodwink its human interrogator into imagining it too is human. Once it has been achieved, the fear is that it will not be long before robots walk among us without our knowledge. And here’s the really frightening thing: it’s possible that future has already arrived.

Priti Patel, 43, Conservative Member of Parliament for Witham, is widely believed to be a human being, but ask it the time of day, for directions to the nearest post office or to multiply two by two and you’ll find it has only been programmed with a single answer: “Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to our national security, to the economy and to hard working families up and down the country.”

In the 24 hours that followed Mr Corbyn’s Labour leadership election victory in September, analysts estimate Ms Patel said these words more than 10,000 times on a confirmed 744 media outlets, including the Daily Politics, Gardeners Question Time and, controversially, the Shipping Forecast on BBC long wave radio.

It’s easy to laugh, but these tactics work. They may make the messenger look stupid, but they get the message out. The challenge, for the party strategists, is finding someone desperate enough to play the fool. Enter Patel.

But such willingness always comes with its rewards. Following a failed attempt in Nottingham in 2005, she finally entered in Parliament in 2010, via a few young years in Conservative Central Office in the late 90s, and a longer stint in PR ( a path so well signposted it is informally known as the Cameron Trail). Not long after the 2015 election she was given the job of Minister of State for Employment at the Department of Work and Pensions. Whether, via a book she co-authored in 2012, labelling British workers as “among the worst idlers in the world” was a direct appeal to the sensitivities of her now boss Iain Duncan Smith is something on which she has always refused to comment.

Whatever the truth, the consequence is that since the moment newspaper editors realised that three names are not enough to fill up a list, Ms Patel has been regularly touted as a possible next leader of the Conservative Party.

All of which makes her most recent gambit, at least at first glance, a little surprising. Never knowingly off message, Ms Patel has told friends she intends to play “a leading role” in the campaign to take Britain out of the EU, a position it is believed she will publicly confirm this weekend.

She is at least true to her roots. In 2013, her 66 year old father, Sushil Patel, a Ugandan Indian who came to Britain to get out of the way of Idi Amin, stunned onlookers by performing what is widely considered to be fastest double U-turn in political history, when he declared his candidature for Ukip in elections to Hertfordshire County Council, withdrew and then stood again, all in the space of 90 minutes.   "He is still my dad and I still love him. Nothing will change that, not even Ukip,” his daughter said at the time. What she failed to add is that evidently she also agrees with him. But having first entered politics via running press operations for James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party in 1997, it would hardly have been a surprise.

None of this is to suggest Ms Patel is afraid to state her own opinion. When the execution of Troy Davis in 2011 forced BBC Question Time on to the subject of the death penalty, Ian Hislop’s patient attempts to explain that wherever it is practised it leads to the execution of innocent people were not enough to persuade her of its risks. “You need full burden of proof, you really do,” she repeated, over and over again, as only she can, determined not to acknowledge that life imprisonment already carries such a burden.

But all that was “a long time ago” and “no longer relevant” she repeatedly told Sky News last year, a precursor to her having been furnished with some fresh opinions. 

“When people’s lives go off track – whether as a result of addiction, debt, crime, or some other issue – as a compassionate society we should look to offer a way out,” she wrote in The Times three weeks ago. “This is as much true for ex-offenders as any other disadvantaged group.” No group is quite so disadvantaged, of course, as the prematurely dead.

That these opinions come directly from Michael Gove, now bringing his unique brand of reformist zeal to the penal system, is intriguing. Ms Patel is nothing if not ambitious, and evidently decided Conservative future lies with the Brexit gang.

In thought, word, deed, style and manner Ms Patel could scarcely be more of a Thatcherite. She has constantly championed small business, not least in her role chair of the all-party parliamentary small shops group, through which she has campaigned against plan packaging for cigarettes, which would be, she said “the final nail in the coffin” for hundreds of newsagents. And bad bad news for the tobacco industry too, for whom she worked as a consultant for almost a decade via the PR firm Weber Shandwick.

One broadsheet newspaper correspondent recounts that, having agreed to be interviewed, she read all of her answers to his questions out of a book, but others who have consumed Ms Patel directly, and not through the prism of the mainstream media say she is “great fun.” It is suggested she would be a far more engaging individual were she to stop volunteering to help get the official message out, which she now appears to have done.

Patel will not be unaware that there is a growing rebellion against the automaton politician happening all over the world, and it is more potent than any ideology. Bernie Sanders, Marine le Pen, Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump might not have much in common, but when they speak, certainly no one can feel the rising nausea of having been triangulated against, that what they’re hearing has been focus-grouped free of all vitality. It’s worth remembering that none of these people has yet made it into government, and they may never do so, but they have overcome the staid political forces of the likes of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and quite probably Jeb Bush, with worrying ease. 

Government by algorithm made flesh may not be done for yet. But if Priti 2.0 really is about to be released, it will need a fundamental upgrade.

Priti Patel: A life in brief

Born: 29 March, 1972 in Islington, London.

Family: Parents were Ugandan refugees. Married to marketing director Alex Sawyer. They have one son.

Education: Watford secondary school; economics degree from Keele University; MSc in British government and politics from University of Essex.

Career: Press officer for Referendum Party and William Hague. PR with Weber Shandwick and drinks firm Diageo. Elected Witham MP in 2010.  Named DWP minister 2015.

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