Another day, another set of allegations against Priti Patel. When the Home Secretary's top civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam resigned over the weekend, he used a public statement to accuse Patel of intimidating behaviour towards staff. Since then, more allegations have surfaced over her behaviour dating back to roles in other departments. Today The Sun reports claims of bullying by Patel while at DfID with an unnamed senior official now allegedly planning to testify against her in the upcoming employment tribunal and Cabinet Office inquiry.
While Patel denies any wrongdoing, there's now talk in Westminster of whether Patel can stay in her role given that this story looks set to run and run. However, those bracing themselves for her departure look set to be disappointed. What the past few days have revealed is how keen No. 10 and the rest of the Tory party is to keep Patel in place. The Prime Minister has described Patel as 'fantastic', No. 10 has poured cold water on speculation she could lose her job while Conservative MPs have been tripping over one another to heap praise on the Home Secretary. One party insider gripes that were another minister facing these allegations, they wouldn’t have be given such special treatment.
As I say in today's i paper, to understand why the No. 10 operation is at such pains to protect Patel from criticism, one needs to understand why she was appointed in the first place. Although it left many liberal Conservatives aghast, Patel’s appointment was key to sending a message to the Tories’ new electoral base. While a Tory colleague once described Patel as 'more right wing than Thatcher', there’s a sense in No. 10 that Patel is more in tune with the country on law and order than the bulk of the Westminster bubble. That judgment call paid off at the election.
It’s also the case that Patel is a favourite among the Tory grassroots. She is one of the few of the current Cabinet ministers who has star credentials, including the ability to pack a room full of activists to hear her speak. She was used as Boris Johnson’s warm-up act at the opening rally of the Tory campaign. This isn't to say that No. 10 aides view her as the perfect politician. They believe that she is on their side and share a desire to change the way the civil service works. But there’s also a sense that she can be a live wire – her top advisers were recently moved. Ultimately a calculation has been made: any risk that comes with having Patel in such a senior role is worth taking on the grounds that she represents what Johnson’s Tory party is trying to do.
Despite this, some ministers are now beginning to conclude it’s only a matter of time before she is moved on. 'She’s made a fatal error. The civil servants are all against her. The Home Office is full of traps,' says a Whitehall old timer. 'They’ll let her fall into one and she’ll be forced out.' Cabinet ministers have begun joking that they could be heading for promotion: 'A great office of state could soon be vacant.' Given that Patel’s downfall has reverberations for Johnson’s premiership – and the Prime Minister’s own judgement – any move would need to be done delicately.