It is hard not to feel sorry for Priti Patel. She would surely have been a Tory conference darling at the gathering that never happened back in autumn 2020 at the height of the pandemic.
Back then she always came towards the top of cabinet ministers' popularity in the monthly survey conducted by the Conservative Home website. But this year the Home Secretary’s ratings have dropped like a stone. She currently sits in 29th place, staring up in envy at such magnetic figures as Alok Sharma and Alister Jack and without even the comfort of knowing that there is always Gavin Williamson to look down on.
In the mini-hall being used for cabinet minister speeches at conference this year, she was received warmly enough as she strode onto the stage. But the applause that punctuated her speech was thin and dutiful. The only rousing cheer came when she observed that there was no reason for any asylum seeker to come to Britain directly from France.
But come they do. And that’s the problem. While Ms Patel may wish for all the right things, she simply does not appear to know how to work the levers of government to bring them about. Instead, she has fallen into a dismal pattern of responding to criticism by over-promising. The inevitable consequence is that her reputation takes further hits each time she is seen to under-deliver.
Last year she promised to make cross-Channel migration 'totally non-viable' within months. Instead, it has expanded. Over the weekend she claimed that her new Borders Bill 'will make illegal migration no longer worth the risk'. Yet it obviously won’t do that. If it could then illegal migration would fall to zero. Does anyone think that is remotely likely? At best the new provisions will nibble away at the fringes of the problem.
Equally in her speech today, Ms Patel claimed: 'We are smashing the economic model of the people smugglers'. Yet this quite plainly is not happening. In fact, more smugglers are making more money taking more irregular migrants across the Channel than ever before.
This same flaw can be seen right across her bailiwick. She told her audience today that she 'will not tolerate so-called eco-warriors' disrupting the lives of people going about their normal business. Yet what is her means of preventing that? Just a slew of new laws and theoretical punishments to sit alongside the existing laws and penalties that are not being properly enforced.
So the Home Secretary risks being seen as someone who believes in her own head that she does not tolerate these things and yet is the presiding officer over a system that tolerates them in reality. The very definition of powerlessness.
Even when it comes to the current acute concern over the police's failure to protect women, the Home Secretary succumbed to this same flaw of political technique, pledging to ensure that what happened to Sarah Everard 'can never happen again'. Her means to securing such a happy state? An ill-defined independent inquiry into 'systematic failures' that allowed Wayne Couzens to possess the power to lure and kill. No doubt there will be steps identified that can be taken to tighten up on the vetting of police officers. But they are bound to fall well short of ensuring that the rape and murder of a member of the public by a rogue officer can never happen again.
In her speech, Ms Patel made a big deal of branding Couzens a 'monster' and of not saying his name — both gimmicks rather than meaningful contributions to the task of reducing male violence against women.
Back on the issue that has undoubtedly caused most damage to her ratings with the Tory tribe — the mockery that the cross-Channel boats have made of the asylum system — there was not a word about the one step that could actually stop them: a move to routine offshore asylum processing in a faraway and not especially hospitable place.
It may well be that the Prime Minister continues to frustrate such a response. But if this is the case then why keep raising expectations of imminent success?
As someone who wishes the Home Secretary well in most of her aims and admires her pluck, it grieves me to say that the overall impression she is currently giving is akin to someone sitting in a flight simulator making brooming and whooshing noises rather than someone who knows how to fly the plane. She needs to learn how to do so fast or else find herself a parachute.