She is one of a handful of ministers who could replace Boris Johnson. Home Secretary Priti Patel is said to be “ready” to get into the race, according to several British media, while the Prime Minister is entangled in a series of scandals. The latest: the holding of Christmas parties at 10 Downing Street in December 2020, in full health restrictions.
Protected by Boris Johnson, the 49-year-old MP for Witham (south of England) has enjoyed a rapid rise in government, despite opposition criticism of her ultra-rightist positions. “There is no one else in the Conservative Party who could do what she does (…) she is unbeatable”, confides a conservative parliamentarian to the Times*. However, nothing, or little, predestined her to become number 3 in the government.
Priti Patel’s notoriety is anchored at the 2019 Annual Conservative Congress. Welcomed like a rock star, she presents herself as a “self-made woman”, as the Tories love it. She then tells the story of a daughter of Indian immigrants from Gujarat who fled the persecutions against Asians of the dictator Idi Amin Dada in the 1970s in Uganda. The story of a woman who started from scratch and climbed the ladder through patience and hard work.
In an immaculate dress, smile supported between two bursts of applause, she hammers home her admiration for Margaret Thatcher and her commitments to “law and order”, “reinforcement of the police” and “the fight against crime”.
“As Margaret Thatcher said, my policy is not based on economic theory, but on values with which millions of people like me have been brought up: honest work, honest pay (…) paying bills on time and support the police.”Priti Patel
at the Conservative Congress in 2019
Priti Patel sees herself as the heir to the “Iron Lady”. Like “Maggie”, she is a tradeswoman’s daughter who has managed to rise to the top of the state. Like “Maggie”, her dislike of Europe runs deep. It dates back to “Black Wednesday” in 1992, when the UK had to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Monetary System, leading to a stock market crash. “My mum and dad lost their business. We were lucky to have a roof over our heads”she tells the Daily Mail*.
After this episode, she joined the Referendum Party, founded by billionaire James Goldsmith (support for Philippe de Villiers in France for the 1995 presidential election), whose sole purpose is to obtain consultation on leaving the EU. At the time, this “Euroscepticism is in the minority on the right, but it eventually progressed and became dominant among the conservatives”analyzes Agnès Alexandre-Collier, professor of British civilization at the University of Burgundy.
With several Conservative MPs, she published a book in 2012 which places her as a major figure of the British “new right”, says The Guardian*. In Britannia Unchainedqualified for “Thatcher on Steroids” by the same left-wing newspaper, Priti Patel accuses the British of being “among the worst slackers in the world”.
“We are among the hardest working people in the world, we retire early and our productivity is low. While Indian children aspire to become doctors or businessmen, Britons are more interested in football and music pop.”Priti Patel
in “Britannia Unchained”
With her co-authors, she calls for a radical deregulation of the market. “This post-Thatcherite ‘new right’ was a godsend for David Cameron, who was seeking to modernize the image of his party, which was too ‘pale, male and stale’ [blanc, masculin et périmé]“decrypts Agnès Alexandre-Collier. “They carried more extreme ideas than the traditional conservatives, but gave a more inclusive image of the party, because they were from minorities or popular backgrounds”analyzes the expert.
Less than ten years later, with Brexit helping, all the authors of the book hold or have held ministerial posts in Boris Johnson’s government. “Brexit has normalized their populist discourse”, summarizes Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. Faced with competition from Ukip, the UK Independence Party, “the conservatives have ‘right-winged’ their position and Priti Patel embodies this line perfectly”he continues.
This sharp turn to the right is particularly illustrated on the migration issue. As soon as she arrived in government in the summer of 2019, Priti Patel established a points system, which intended to favor “brilliant brains” It front of “unskilled workers”. Of the 70 points required to obtain a visa, 50 are given if an applicant speaks English, and 20 if he has a promise of employment showing an annual salary of at least 30,000 euros per year, illustrates the BBC * .
“Apart from this chosen immigration, the government wants to criminalize illegal crossings, which goes against international law,” worries Ala Sirriyeh, a migration researcher at Lancaster University.
“Through immigration, which is only considered from a security angle, Priti Patel wants to show that the country is regaining control of its borders, a promise dear to Brexiters.”Ala Sirriyeh, researcher at Lancaster University
In October 2020, the FinancialTimes* reveals suggestions from a confidential working meeting between Priti Patel and her collaborators, intended to find new methods to fight against migrant crossings in the English Channel. Among the ideas on the table: using water cannons to create waves and overturn migrant canoes, building a “floating wall” of boats* to block passages, creating asylum processing centers on unused ferries or oil rigs*, or relocating asylum seekers to Ascension Island*, a pebble in the middle of the South Atlantic, almost 7,000 km from London.
“This idea comes from brain dead morons in the Home Office”sweeps away a cabinet official, while others close to the minister blame it on “enemies within”. But the leak only convinces the opposition a little more that the minister is pursuing a migration policy “inhumane, totally impractical and extremely expensive”.
This hard line has also been the source of many tensions with Paris. The same year, Priti Patel criticizes the French government* not to intercept boats and calls for migrants to stay in France, “a safe country”. The break was consummated in November 2021 when Gérald Darmanin withdrew the British minister’s invitation to a European summit in Calais (Pas-de-Calais), after the sinking and death of 27 migrants. “Our exchanges are cordial in private, but in public, the British government complains about France. We regret this double talk”comments a source at the French Ministry of the Interior.
Ignoring criticism on the merits as the form, Priti Patel refuses to be where expected. On social issues, she supported for a time the restoration of the death penalty before reconsidering her position and opposed the marriage of homosexual couples. In 2020, she calls the environmental activists of Extinction Rebellion “crusaders” who have “fired criminals”, cited The world. To counter their peaceful sit-in, she proposes to criminalize the demonstrators who block the roads, recalls The Guardian*.
The same year, in the wake of global outrage over the murder of George Floyd, she called the unbolting of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol a“absolutely shameful”and when footballers kneel to denounce racism, it evokes “political posturing”.
“Being a person of color does not automatically give you authority over all forms of racism”, then accuse Labor MPs from minorities. Dry, she answers them on Twitter : “I will not be silenced by Labor MPs who continue to reject the ideas of those who do not conform to their vision of how ethnic minorities should behave.”
“People expect me to be anti-racist because I’m Asian, but that’s a racist stereotype.”Priti Patel
to “Glamour UK”
Hated and loved, it’s hard to find a political figure who divides opinion as much as Priti Patel. “She does not fit into boxes. She is not a traditional conservative”, defends one of his friends with the Times*. “People spend their time lecturing him. But would they have spoken to a man like that?” asks another.
For Mike Savage, professor of political science at the London School of Economicshis speech is in the image of his time: “She’s part of that right wing who in the ‘cultural battles’ of the post-Brexit UK is fighting progressivism by creating conflict. She knows she can say things a white man couldn’t say, and that benefits his party.”
Boris Johnson understood this well. The former mayor of London continues to defend it with each controversy. In 2020, she was accused of moral harassment and the BBC* reveals that the government paid 25,000 pounds to a former employee of the Ministry of Labour, where Priti Patel worked in 2015, who had committed a suicide attempt after a violent verbal attack of the minister. An investigation concludes that Priti Patel has indeed breached the ministerial code on several occasions, in several ministries. Boris Johnson chooses to grant him his “full confidence” and simply replies that she is “a fantastic Minister of the Interior”. He even calls on his ministers to “form a square around the Prittster” (the nickname he gives her).
“Boris Johnson is very fond of this kind of personality, authoritarian, who dares to speak his mind. He also needs her because she embodies the hard Brexit he promised”, explains Agnès Alexandre-Collier. “Brexiteuse” before her time, whose marginal ideas have become central in her party… Priti Patel’s time could well have come.
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