Priti Patel: saviour of the Tory Right
Written by Interviewon 5 October 2012 in
This issue is from the October 2012 issue of Total Politics
If her media rep is to be believed, Priti Patel is the poster-girl cheerleader for the cause of capital punishment, full stop. And the media frenzy that blew up around a book she co-wrote – which accused British workers of being lazy – has done much to fuel the impression, in some quarters at least, that the current MP for Witham is simply a modern-day Norman Tebbit.
Peeling back the layers of this caricature, however, something more significant starts to emerge. There are mutterings that Patel, an ambitious young MP, is voicing the views of the arch, Thatcherite “beating heart” of much of the Tory Party, but that her journey into Westminster could only have happened in a progressive, modern Britain. Could this outspoken MP, who seems to be reconciling both facets of the Tory soul, become the party’s Holy Grail?
“There’s some concern that this isn’t a 100 per cent Conservative government,” says fellow Essex MP and Patel devotee David Amess: “We want Conservative values and the Conservative voice to be heard clearly, and she’s done a splendid job as executive on the 1922 Committee, making sure that ordinary backbenchers’ views and voices are heard.”
That Amess is impressed at how quickly Patel has become a key part of the parliamentary Conservative Party is unsurprising: he admits that the parliamentary party he joined in 1983 looked a lot different to how it does today. Get Patel talking politics, and she quickly shows why she’s now a darling for many Tory MPs who are fed up with the half-life of today’s government.
“Obviously, this is a coalition, not a Conservative government,” says Patel. “That’s a constant throughout everything that it does and what it stands for.”
As politicians and commentators alike count the cracks emerging in the bond between the coalition parties, comments from plain-speaking backbenchers are increasingly seen as symptomatic of a party looking beyond this Parliament. Indeed, Patel is already talking openly to her constituents about life after Clegg and co. “I’ve got views on growth, for example, and on business, and I’m very happy to talk about issues in a much broader sense – how a future Conservative government would be able to do more in such areas.”
After a difficult few months that ended with Liberal Democrats withdrawing support for redrawn boundaries, Patel’s doorstep conversations also provide very tangible evidence of coalition life’s new realities. “There may be some frustrations in September and in the autumn, but we’ll have to see what happens,” she admits.
Despite this, the last two and a half years have at least allowed a degree of growth of the Conservatism she wants to see. “If you look at Iain Duncan Smith,” she points out, “he’s doing everything he can on reforming the welfare state to make it the safety net it was supposed to be when Beveridge created its blueprint 70 years ago.”
And the Witham MP expresses similar admiration for the work Michael Gove is doing on education. “It’s the right thing to do, and we’re not ashamed to say that it’s the Conservative arm of the government that is responsible. Improving educational outcomes is central to getting on in life, to promoting and creating social mobility.”
Yet, however impressed Patel has been by like-minded cabinet ministers, her political hero remains the woman who was prime minister when she first joined the party: Margaret Thatcher.
“She had a unique ability to understand what made people tick, households tick and businesses tick. Managing the economy, balancing the books and making decisions – not purchasing things the country couldn’t afford,” says Patel.
The shadow of a serially elected Thatcher undoubtedly still looms over many party members, in this time of dwindling election prospects and double-dip recession. For Patel, however, it was the effect that Thatcher’s Britain had on her Ugandan-Asian parents, who were looking to start a new life here, that makes her a contemporary Thatcherite.
“Mum and dad had a difficult journey – anybody who came from East Africa to this country had a very difficult time; that’s just a fact,” she reminisces. “My dad was the eldest child in his family, so he had to look after everybody – mum, dad, brothers and sisters.”
While it’s a story familiar to millions of Britons, Patel’s immigrant experience led directly to her classically Conservative political instincts. “There was a desire to work hard and to be successful so you didn’t have to rely on anybody else,” the Witham MP explains. Patel’s father set up a series of newsagents from London to Norfolk. His daughter grew up playing under the till, sitting in the trolley during trips to the cash and carry, and learning to love the country that had provided a fertile ground for her parents’ entrepreneurial efforts.
“Coming from a country where you’re persecuted means that you want to work hard and to contribute to the society where you end up. You become patriotic because you make your new country your home, and, as a result, you live and play by its values.”
The significance of Patel’s story isn’t lost on fellow Conservative parliamentarians. “I’ve been an MP for 30 years next year,” says Amess, “and 30 years ago you wouldn’t have thought that someone like Priti would have been a Conservative MP.”
Yet Amess is fully aware that Patel “comes from a background that Margaret Thatcher would have applauded” – she’s a “self-made” woman.
As well as impressing her constituents and fellow MPs, this blend of modern background and classic Conservative instincts means she is receiving plaudits from the same Tory press that, in many instances, is still trying to fathom exactly who Cameron is, and casting around for alternative heroes for the right.
Writing in his Daily Mail column last year, Kelvin MacKenzie stated that Patel would be a “perfect” candidate for future Conservative Party leader – less than two years into her parliamentary career. He explained in characteristically strong terms: “She doesn’t bend at the knee for the liberal intelligentsia at the top of the Conservative Party.”
Though she had been a loyal coalition voter prior to the mass revolt on Lords reform, Patel, nevertheless, peppers her conversations with plain-speaking critiques of some of her least-favourite government moments. ‘The Big Society’ is gently snubbed when discussing improving community safety – “It’s about localism, actually” – and she describes the Treasury’s continued funding of the Bank of England as “extraordinary”.
And like Amess, MacKenzie sees Patel’s story as a significant attraction for a party still in search of a modern identity with which it can be comfortable. “Ugandan-Asians have made a tremendous contribution to the net wealth of this country,” he says: “Culturally, they’re strong economically and strong on family values.” After his Leveson outpourings and “half-term premier” view of Cameron (May 2012), he believes Patel’s ethical background of hard work gives her an advantage over many proto-future Tory leaders. “We’ve tried ‘Eton and Oxford’: let’s try ‘comprehensive and Keele’ [Patel’s university] and, most importantly, ‘Ugandan-Asian’. People will find it a very attractive Conservative proposition.”
“I’ve got nothing against Theresa May, but Priti would make a bloody marvellous home secretary,” he adds. “The country would know bad guys would be going away for a hell of a long time.” The addition in 2011 of the petition ‘No to Prisoner Votes’ to Patel’s website gives a certain weight to this rallying cry.
But is Patel as ambitious as her fans? When asked if she sees a future for herself in the cabinet, she exclaims: “I’d be wrong to say no!” “It would be an honour and a privilege to join an administration. It’s about public service.”
For now, however, Patel is mostly interested in getting her voice heard in the policy discussions at the heart of her party, something she calls “the battle of ideas”.
“I joined my local branch when I was 18, and we always used to discuss policy. It’s what got me involved – politics as the battle of ideas, fresh thinking, policy papers’.”
“I’ve always placed a great deal of emphasis on that, because you can build a coalition of ideas from your branch and your activists – they have a wide range of experiences from what they’ve done themselves – giving them the chance to have a say and a voice within a formal party structure.”
From the publicity she gained for her views on the death penalty, on an episode of Question Time, to this repeated reference to ‘grassroots’, it wouldn’t take much to view her public utterances and manoeuvring as just one more cynical, self-promotional campaign by a populist Conservative who knows which tunes to play to get the party faithful singing along.
Delegates looking for a cut-out, right-wing Tory champion, however, might be unhappy to know that, having had first-hand experience of the unreconstructed views of 1970s Britain, Patel understands that society, and her party, has to move with the times. When asked about potentially thorny issues such as gay adoption, she is pragmatic, seeing the crisis in our care system as a far greater issue than any concerns about “lifestyles”.
“We have to look at how society has evolved, and family units and structures have changed. The shocking statistics on low adoption rates are disturbing; we should do what we can to encourage adoption.”
Having a Tory champion who sounds neither out of date nor a part of the ‘nasty party’ might gladden the hearts of some Conservatives in search of a majority at the next election.
In Steve Hilton’s absence, perhaps Cameron should give Priti Patel a call.