It isn’t sexism that’s holding Priti Patel back – it’s her hellish department

Theresa Villiers says that the attacks on the home secretary’s trustworthiness smack of misogyny. Yet the real problem for Patel is that Home Office is notoriously difficult to steer

 

 

Priti Patel: 'You can't blame the government for poverty'

Can Priti Patel keep a secret? Some (namely a number of MI5 bosses) have told the Sunday Times that she cannot. Others (the home secretary and, in an unusual show of solidarity, her permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam) say that’s nonsense, and that MI5 is perfectly happy to share with her the most sensitive of intelligence. They acknowledge policy disagreements between the home secretary and her officials, but believe she can be trusted.

The ever-sisterly Theresa Villiers argues that the attacks on the home secretary’s trustworthiness smack of misogyny. Maybe, maybe not. Yet we should all know that Ms Patel is more than capable of keeping schtum when it is in her own interests and to perform undercover activity on a quite prodigious scale.

It has been too easily forgotten that when she was briefly international development secretary in Theresa May’s government, she undertook a secret mission to Israel, meeting with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during what was booked as a holiday. Remarkably, Number 10 was entirely unaware. Ms May did not know that Ms Patel had met Mr Netanyahu in August 2017 and with no officials present (though in the presence of Lord Polak, a long-time Tory lobbyist).

After Ms Patel’s initial version of events was found unsatisfactory, Ms May sacked Ms Patel in a meeting that lasted for six minutes. Some hint of the flavour of that exchange can be gleaned from the official correspondence: “The UK and Israel are close allies and should work closely together,” wrote the then prime minister in her response to Patel’s resignation. “But that must be done formally, and through official channels. That is why, when we met on Monday, I was glad to accept your apology and welcomed your clarification about your trip to Israel over the summer. Now that further details have come to light, it is right that you have decided to resign and adhere to the high standards of transparency and openness that you have advocated.”

So Ms Patel did eventually get rumbled – perhaps by the very security services now criticising her in the news. While the entire incident suggests a lack of nous on Patel’s part, she probably did not blow the gaffe herself.

From what one can discern from the outside, there seem to be other factors conspiring against Ms Patel at the moment, none of them to do with sexism.

First, Ms Patel doesn’t impress with her public utterances. The comedian Michael Spicer has subjected her to a particularly vicious “man next door” treatment, ridiculing her pledge to fight “counter-terrorism”. She also once summarised her new immigration policy as aimed at attracting “scientists and doctors”, suggesting a loose grip on the detail. Then there's the perma-smirk, which she says she just cannot help.

Second, while Patel clearly knows what she wants, what she wants may not always be possible. She is evidently a forceful minster, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but she is clearly also asking her officials to perform tasks that are impossible either because they are literally not possible, or because they contravene other government policies, or because they’re badly misguided. What’s more, Patel seems inclined to voice her frustrations in a way that blames those working for her rather than the difficulty of her demands.

But her predicament, or that of her advisers, is not unusual.

Priti Patel refuses to say whether her parents would have been able to enter the UK under her immigration plans

We should bear in mind, for example, that none of the four Conservative home secretaries appointed since 2010 has come anywhere near meeting the centrepiece Conservative pledge about limiting immigration to the “tens of thousands” – not Theresa May, not Amber Rudd, not Sajid Javid and not Priti Patel. Nor would anyone else have been able to, no matter who the home secretary or their permanent secretary happens to be. While we were in the EU it certainly was not possible; outside, it may prove a forlorn hope (and has now been scrapped, in any case).

Third, being home secretary is a bed of nails. Historically, the remit is one framed as the special policy unit of hell: immigration, asylum, drugs, prisons, terrorism, policing, probation; it’s basically all about waiting for accidents to happen, limiting the damage those accidents cause, then dodging blame for them. Though Ms May managed to turn it into a springboard for Number 10, more often it is a graveyard of ambition, the place where manifesto promises go to die.

Nor is Ms Patel the first to find the Home Office a difficult department to steer; a few years ago Ms Rudd had to resign over a performance at a select committee about the Windrush affair. She may have been underbriefed by her officials, or misunderstood the statistics. Either way, she had to go.

Of course, these troubles didn’t begin under the Conservatives. Back under Blair’s Labour, in 2006, home secretary John Reid famously said that is department’s immigration system was “not fit for purpose”. His predecessor, Charles Clarke, had had to quit when it emerged that he had accidentally released, rather than deported, more than 1,000 foreign prisoners convicted of offences as serious as manslaughter, rape and child sex offences – an outstanding oversight, even by Home Office standards.

Yet perhaps the best-known Home Office blunder came in 1984, when a homeless man managed to get into the Queen’s bedroom at Buckingham Palace, perch himself on the bed and ask if the monarch had a spare cigarette. Willie Whitelaw – home secretary and deputy Tory leader, a popular, respected and affable patrician of the old school – was vilified by the press. He was held personally responsible for the outrageous breach of security, though miraculously managed to hold on to his job. Our sense of proportion hasn’t improved much in the three decades since.

Ms Patel’s struggles at the Home Office are not due to misogyny, bullying or incompetence. They are an occupational hazard of trying to run a department from which far too much is expected. As some of her predecessors have proved, failure in the job is inevitable, and the main survival skill is brazening it all out. Ms Patel might prove rather good at that.

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