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Priti Patel: The horse whisperer for right-wing Tories

Home secretary, Priti Patel, addresses the delegates on the third day of the Conservative Party Conference at Manchester Central. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images. - Credit: Getty Images

ZOE WILLIAMS issues a damning verdict on Brexiteer Priti Patel’s performance in government.

With ministers instructed not to appear on any flagship current affairs shows of the BBC’s, the Today programme has taken on the atmosphere of a Royal Variety Performance. It has all the elements of showbiz without any of the content.

The Beeb will have to find a strategy to deal with this new reality, and fast, but in the meantime, I listen to it anyway, for the nostalgic sensation: it reminds me of the sound of politicians being held to account, even if it is no longer that.

And so I found myself treated to an irrelevant ex-minister, Theresa Villiers, defending an absent minister, Priti Patel – who is hard to defend. So much of what is objectionable about Patel is already out in the open.

That she is happy to introduce an immigration policy that would have excluded her own parents; that she would disregard protocol, diplomacy and the national interest to conduct unauthorised meetings with a foreign government; that she is not truthful; that she would sell off freedom of movement without a second thought, for a cheer in a conference hall; all this we already know, and even a party ally who was prepared to take on some of it couldn’t possibly agree with it all.

Villiers was, however, prepared to go in to battle on the subject of the home secretary’s well-documented rifts with the civil service, including with her permanent secretary. This is part of a rich history of men briefing against powerful women, Villiers declared. She didn’t elaborate because she didn’t need to. We all know what men are like, right? Bold, fearless women are constantly undermined by these worms who fear their power.

I have thought a lot about this switcheroo: people who don’t talk much about equality or diversity, then marshal its language and the classic arguments of feminism in order to shout down a critique and taint reasonable objections.

If you say “this has nothing to do with Patel’s gender, it has to do with her competence and intelligence”, you join the ranks of people who always undermine women by questioning their brains.

If you say “don’t play the sexism card”, you become the person who refuses to see sexism in public life and thereby perpetuates it. You cannot fight a bad faith argument with reason. The only sensible response is, “come off it”. Or, if you prefer, “Oi, Villiers, come off it”.

Patel may look like quite a canny appointment – the woman who can scotch all charges of government-by-Etonians by being a second-generation immigrant – but that misses the point.

The mood has changed. This government does not care about diversity in its cabinet, and does not care about people who do, except in the shallowest sense that it allows the odd moment of cheap, “is it because I is female?” pearl-clutching.

Patel’s value is much greater than window dressing, and much rarer. She really is an unusual politician, hitting notes that others could not even fake.

Patel was always considered a maverick in the Cameron years, but never a dangerous one: she was fielded for Sunday morning radio shows when nothing significant enough to warrant a reasoned response had happened.

She was in the Britannia Unchained vanguard – the 2012 book she wrote with Dominic Raab, Elizabeth Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng and Chris Skidmore – spouting post-Thatcherite non sequiturs, protected from their own inanity by the blessing that nobody was listening.

Her track record was already quite unpleasant: she would talk vaguely about her background in business, but the meat of her career had been as a lobbyist for British American Tobacco. Fair enough, it could happen to anyone – you join the purveyor of known carcinogens as a graduate, before you know it, you’ve forgotten what was wrong with the enterprise. Except that’s not quite how it happened: she came to the work via her job with the PR company Weber Shandwick.

She performs the same service in government, making the speech that others would balk at, either because they had immediate moral qualms, or because they feared getting bitten by it later. She is similarly unruffled by foresight.

In one respect, though, she did position herself intelligently, as part of the growing voice of hard Brexit, that went beyond being bored of experts and ventured onto the territory of fecklessness and disregarding reason.

This new wave used the issue instrumentally to make their own name in the Tory party, each vying to be the most patriotic, where patriotism is defined as refusal to compromise. Really, there were not many proponents, since to be at all vocal was inevitably to reveal one’s own ignorance – witness Raab finding out live on stage how close Britain was to France, and Karen Bradley discovering the complexities of Northern Irish politics only after she had taken up post as minister for the region.

These humiliations would be hard yards even for the thickest skin, but the Tory faithful love the sight of someone, like Patel, going through them and not caring. Here is this politician, who can mix up a “terrorist” and a “counter-terrorist”; who can be sent home from Israel in such disgrace that news agencies are tracking her plane in real time; who can threaten the Republic of Ireland with food shortages to make a third-rate debating point; and still emerge with the same closed-mouth smile of someone who’s just scored a century with a broken shoulder – this is catnip to many on the right.

In her imperviousness to liberal bleating, they relive every encounter they ever had with modernity, except in this version, they win. She is the avatar of the culturally left-behind, the warrior princess of everyone who’s ever wondered why we can’t just send the immigrants back where they came from, and been laughed out of the pub for it.

If we were to imagine a world populated only by Conservatives – come on, we spend all this time at the mouth of hell, we may as well – Patel’s polar opposite was Theresa May. It’s not that their politics were so different. May was the architect of the ‘go home or face arrest’ vans, an idea which – I feel confident I won’t be sued for saying – Patel would have loved. But the former prime minister carried this existential awkwardness, this sense that she had said or done something appalling, and it filled her supporters with refracted shame.

Boris Johnson has the familiar shamelessness of entitlement – the familiar tacit question of the public schoolboy, “who are you to question me?”. Patel has something in another league, a delighted, almost puckish nihilism: “Who is anybody to question anybody?” She is horse whisperer to many of those on the right, saying things just with her eyebrows that Iain Duncan Smith (say) at his darkest couldn’t begin to articulate.

It was inevitable, however, that she wouldn’t last long in contact with the civil service, however: they are the interface between rhetoric and material reality. It is curious to describe this job – clean, indoor work with no heavy lifting, at its finest – as the ‘coal face’ of anything, but civil servants really are at the coal face of the rule of law, the embedded knowledge and power of institutions, the bit of mature democracy that no cut-price strongman or his henchperson can easily kick over.

The very nonchalance that makes Patel so attractive to her party make her utterly untenable to people whose work is detail, accountability and – this may be the deal breaker – actually caring about the nation, and the people in it.

So her tantrums, her alleged bullying and swearing, bouts of narcissistic rage in which everybody is stupid apart from her (which sounds very Cummings), these are the most colourful but least interesting bits of her rocky start. Priti Patel and a precise, thoughtful, law-abiding civil servant simply cannot co-exist. It is grim to watch the fight commence, but I won’t pretend it’s not fascinating.

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