No one takes the job of Britain’s interior minister with the aim of becoming popular.
The occupant of the post, officially titled home secretary, sits astride a sprawling government department that oversees the UK’s immigration, policing, drugs and counter-terror policy – sensitive and politically perilous issues that that are not for the faint of heart.
The endurance of the current incumbent is currently being put to the test with a political storm over migration that will require nerves of steel to weather.
Priti Patel, Boris Johnson’s pugilistic appointee, is reported to have considered a proposal to send asylum-seekers to two Atlantic islands more than 4,000 miles away from the UK. Aides reportedly considered moving migrants to the isolated British territories of Ascension Island and St. Helena, off the coast of Africa.
Patel has reportedly dismissed the idea, but further alleged proposals emerged Thursday, when The Times newspaper said officials were considering placing asylum-seekers on ferries off the UK coast.
Whether Patel eventually signs off on a plan to hold migrants offshore or not, the hardline proposals reflect the increasingly tough line on immigration under her leadership.
Since she took office in 2019, the first woman of color to hold the post, Britain’s policies stance on immigration has hardened, to divisive effect. Patel may not have originated the specific plans outlined in the media this week, but the resulting furore has focused on the Home Secretary, her views and her vow to curb the numbers of migrants who have increasingly been arriving in the UK by crossing the English Channel from France.
“The number of illegal small boat crossings is appalling and unacceptably high,” Patel said in a tweet in August. It’s true that the number of asylum-seekers arriving by small boats from across the channel has surged since April 2020 – according to the House of Commons Library, between April and August 2020, around 4,600 people entered Britain this way, up from around 1,800 in the whole of 2019.
“France and other EU states are safe countries,” Patel added in her tweet. “Genuine refugees should claim asylum there, not risk their lives and break the law by coming to the UK.”
The Home Secretary has repeatedly vowed to make the route “unviable” for migrants.
“Tens of thousands of people have rebuilt their lives in the UK and we will continue to provide safe and legal routes in the future,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said Wednesday.
“As ministers have said, we are developing plans to reform policies and laws around illegal migration and asylum to ensure we are able to provide protection to those who need it, while preventing abuse of the system and the criminality associated with it.”
The leaked plans were furiously condemned by Britain’s opposition Labour Party.
Patel’s opposition counterpart Nick Thomas-Symonds said the government was “lurching from one inhumane and impractical idea to another.”
“The idea of sending people to Ascension Island, creating waves in the English Channel to wash boats back and buying ferries and oil rigs to process asylum claims shows the Government has lost control and all sense of compassion,” he said in a statement Thursday.
The practicality of the proposals was also widely mocked in parts of the British press. The Guardian newspaper, a left-of-center publication, derided the Home Office for being “clueless,” and dismissed the ideas as stupid and ill developed.
An influential minister
Patel was born in London in 1972, to Ugandan Indian parents who ran a chain of newsagents. She invoked her background during a 2019 speech at a Conservative Party conference, where she also pledged to end “the free movement of people once and for all” from the EU after Brexit.
Her message to her critics at the time was blunt: “This daughter of immigrants needs no lectures from the north London, metropolitan, liberal elite.”
The tension between Patel’s roots and hardline stance on migration has recurred throughout her government career.
In June 2020, during a parliamentary debate on structural racism, the Home Secretary said she would “not take lectures” on racism, sexism and tolerance from the opposition Labour Party, having survived racist taunts herself.
The remark, delivered as Black Lives Matter protests continued worldwide, infuriated some opposition MPs. In response, a group of BAME opposition MPs wrote to the Home Secretary, stating their disappointment “at the way you used your heritage and experiences of racism to gaslight the very real racism faced by black people and communities across the UK.”
Patel is also a passionate Brexiteer and a longtime ally of Johnson, who has described her as “a good friend.” But despite her loyalty to Johnson, Patel divides opinion among the UK political set. Her policy positions put her on the right of the governing Conservative Party, much of Westminster and beyond. Those who have worked with her largely fall into two groups: People who praise her for her perceived toughness and those who despair at it.
The Home Secretary is viewed as a strong ideologue, one former Conservative Party adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. Given those views, this adviser said Patel’s leadership of the home ministry had been controversial and divisive.
But one former colleague told CNN that Patel was “tenacious, a street fighter,” even while acknowledging that she was to the right on many issues.
They added that while the Home Secretary did not have many diplomatic traits, “I would go into the jungle with her.”
A checkered career
Patel became an Conservative MP in May 2010 and rose rapidly through the ministerial ranks. But her swift ascent has been hindered by serious missteps.
In 2011, Patel said on a BBC program that she supported reinstating capital punishment for the most serious crimes. The remarks were unusual for a British MP, though she has since said that she has changed her mind on the issue.
In 2017, Patel resigned from her post as secretary of state for international development in Theresa May’s government, after breaking diplomatic protocol by holding undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials on a family holiday. She said her actions “fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated.”
And in February 2020, Patel faced her biggest scandal yet, after the Home Office was rocked by civil servants who accused her of bullying them at work. If proven, these allegations would constitute a breach of the UK’s ministerial code. Patel has denied any wrongdoing but was the subject of a Cabinet Office inquiry ordered by Johnson. The probe has been completed but is yet to be published.
The scandal worsened when Philip Rutnam, a top civil servant, resigned from the department in dramatic fashion.
In a televised statement in February, Rutnam said the allegations against the Home Secretary included claims of “shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands.” He described the alleged behavior as conduct that “created fear and that needed some bravery to call out.”
CNN has contacted the Home Office for comment.
For his part, Johnson has repeatedly backed his Home Secretary in the face of the bullying allegations. “The Home Secretary is doing an outstanding job – delivering change, putting police out on the streets, cutting crime and delivering a new immigration system – and I am sticking by her,” he said in March.
And despite her setbacks, Patel’s influential position seems assured. Polling company YouGov found that the alleged policy proposal to house migrants on an island was considered a “good idea” by 40% of those surveyed.
“I would accept that her politics on some issues are probably more to the right than most of the Conservative party,” one former adviser told CNN. “But once you step outside of the Westminster bubble, you see she is more in tune with the public than most are happy to admit.
“That was the genius of Boris putting her in [the Home Office] really. He needed an ally in that position who he can let say things that are off putting in Westminster but is bang on where the public [is.]”
CNN’s Luke McGee contributed to this report