These are dangerous times for British democracy. We have an increasing number of politicians in the highest office who have either no understanding of or no concern for the boundary between their public role and their private financial or political interests. This sort of behaviour is typical of the world’s most corrupt regimes, and the activities of Priti Patel are an object lesson.
A mere 18 months ago, Patel was sacked in disgrace when she engaged in freelance lobbying while Secretary of State for International Development. Patel had held 12 unaccompanied meetings in Israel in August 2017, including with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without telling the Foreign Office or recording the meetings in the way required by ministers. She was improvising her own foreign policy using the DFID budget, with a plan to funnel cash to the Israeli army.
That breaking the fundamental rules of democratic politics is no barrier to advancement to the highest offices in the land is deeply troubling.
Patel came into politics after a career as a corporate lobbysist. For several years she lobbied on behalf of British American Tobacco (BAT), where her role included providing ‘strategic advice on account with a particular focus on the Conservative Party’. Documents released in 2015 showed that she had helped BAT limit the damage to its reputation after revelations that the company was paying its Burmese workers a mere £15 a month. A BAT executive noted that others at Patel’s lobbying firm had expressed discomfort about doing such work for Big Tobacco, but that Patel herself, whose work for BAT was billed at £165 an hour, ‘seemed quite relaxed working with us’.
Patel’s political ineptitude has been demonstrated on many occasions, not least by her insensitive comment that possible food shortages after a no-deal Brexit could be used as leverage to pressure the Irish government into agreeing to the removal of the backstop from the withdrawal agreement. Not only was this grossly offensive in the context of the 19th-century Irish famine, it also demonstrated Patel’s ignorance of the Good Friday Agreement, which is owned by the EU itself as well as by the Irish and British governments.
Clare Collier, advocacy director at the human rights group Liberty, responded to news of Patel’s appointment as Home Secretary by saying ‘Priti Patel is a politician with a consistent record of voting against basic human rights protections. For her to be put in charge of the Home Office is extremely concerning.’ Such concerns can only be heightened by reports that the government is preparing for ‘widespread civil disorder’ following a no-deal Brexit; as Home Secretary these preparations and the decision about when it becomes appropriate to declare a state of emergency, fall to Priti Patel.
One of her first actions as Home Secretary was to announce her intention to greatly expand police ‘stop and search’ powers, despite a lack of evidence that these are effective in bringing down crime and a great deal of evidence that such powers are used prinicipally against young black men, with disastrous consequences for community relations.
Some of Patel’s previously expressed views about law and order may give some insight into how she will approach her new responsibilities for immigration, our civil rights, and prisons and policing. Her support for the death penalty was challenged on Question Time by Ian Hislop, who pointed out that miscarriages of justice frequently lead to innocent people being executed. Patel replied with chilling callousness and ignorance, concerned only about the supposed ‘deterrent’ effect of putting people to death.
No less troubling is the fact that Patel is now in charge of our domestic security service (MI5). It has been clear since the referendum campaign that our vital national interests have been compromised by key actors’ relationships with foreign powers. Very little of the detail of these links have come into the public domain.
We have explored elsewhere the Russian links to the Brexit campaign, and Putin’s intervention to insist that ‘the will of the people’ is obeyed is a rare piece of overt evidence. On the US side, the extraordinary intervention by Trump, calling Johnson ‘Britain’s Trump’ and immediately connecting our new Prime Minister with Nigel Farage, no doubt has its own logic – as does the ‘Darrochgate’ leak. But the responsibility for preventing foreign forces from intervening in our domestic affairs rests with the security services. With Priti Patel overseeing their work it is very hard to believe this is in safe hands.