- The Background: Priti Patel is an old right-wing Eurosceptic, briefly joining the anti-Europe Referendum Party in 1997
- The Sound: During the Brexit campaign, she claimed the UK economy would benefit from a withdrawal of employment rights
- The Reward If Johnson or another Leave proponent becomes PM, Patel might hope for more prominence in the government
Known as a true-blue Tory, the Right Honourable Priti Patel, 43, the daughter of immigrant Gujarati parents, had been in the forefront of the Brexit campaign long before Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Lord Norman Lamont joined the bandwagon. After Brexit became a reality, there has been speculation that she may put herself up for the top post of the Conservative party, although she is too junior for it.
However, given her strong right-wing views, many believe outgoing premier David Cameron would not have been surprised by her support for Brexit. Patel’s father was very right-wing (he even stood as a UKIP councillor in 2013) and her own teenage heroes were Margaret Thatcher and the late Cecil Parkinson, once her local MP and a regular customer at the corner shop run by her father. She has earlier endorsed the return of capital punishment. In 2012, she was one of the so-called “young guns” from the party’s new right who called for a culture of “graft, risk and effort” to project Britain into the ‘super league’ of nations. In the 1997 general election, she defected, albeit briefly, to the anti-Europe Referendum Party, which campaigned for a vote to decide on whether Britain should stay in the EU.
Immaculately dressed—and yes, with French manicured nails—the former lobbyist and current minister of state for employment caused a stir during the referendum campaign by suggesting the British economy would benefit from a cutting back of employment rights.
On the eve of the referendum, she wrote: “I have always believed that Britain would be better off out, and during this campaign a very strong and compelling case for taking back control has come forward. Billions of pounds of growth and hundreds of thousands of new jobs can be created by taking an international approach to trade rather than being stuck within the EU’s protectionist structures. With our place restored at the top table of the WTO, we will deliver more free trade agreements and open up business links with emerging and fast-growing markets overseas and our friends in the Commonwealth.”
But the cabinet’s most senior Indian-origin minister’s argument, that “we give something like £350 million a week to the EU”, has been torn down by her own campaign colleagues after the result.
Ironically, after achieving their goal of a Brexit, Patel and her other colleagues have gone silent. Johnson came out and said he wanted access to the European market, but his closest rival for the keys to 10 Downing Street, home secretary Theresa May, mindful of Brexit’s anti-immigration plank, wants stronger border controls. But for market access there will have to be free movement of people to live and work in the UK—which is unacceptable to the Leave camp.
While the next Conservative leader will be elected in September, it is clear now that the Leave camp is bereft of plans as to how the UK will negotiate. While one Tory MP said, “David Cameron should have been thinking about this”, the PM delivered a googly by announcing his resignation and leaving the responsibility of the exit negotiations to the new government. It is not particularly surprising that in this climate of uncertainty Patel is refusing to speak.
During the campaign though, Patel remained a forceful speaker and used her prowess in the Asian communities. She also defended Johnson fiercely when he faced personal attacks from the Remain camp. She said, before a debate, “If they have learned nothing else, they would have realised that it is counter-productive to start launching personal attacks. I take the view that we will be using the facts. There is a recognition that once you start engaging in the area of personal attacks you have lost the argument.”
The coming weeks will remain politically uncertain, but if Johnson or any Leave proponent enters 10 Downing Street, Patel, a second-tier politician— she does not have full cabinet rank—is sure to get more prominence.
In Brexit, she seized her moment. Now Priti Patel is waiting to reap the benefits.
By Nabanita Sircar in London