Priti Patel, Britain's hardline home secretary, exposes the fault lines of a divided country

Priti Patel commands support among grassroots Conservatives, but her approach has polarized Britons.

London (CNN)Priti Patel, Britain's hardline home secretary, is under renewed scrutiny following the deaths of dozens of people in the English Channel -- one of the worst tragedies affecting migrants bound for Britain in recent memory.

But Patel is accustomed to scrutiny. Even in Britain's fractured political landscape, few lawmakers are as intensely polarizing as Patel, who has held key jobs in successive Conservative governments and whose name has been floated as a potential successor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
On the issue of immigration -- and on Brexit, social justice, law and order and far more besides -- her name serves as a Rorschach test for a divided society, reflecting acclaim and anger from each side of the nation's cultural schism.
    To her admirers on the right, she is a steadfast flagbearer for Brexit Britain; a principled patriot who, as a state school-educated daughter of Indian immigrants, is uniquely placed to move the Conservative Party away from its decades-old reputation as elitist and out of touch with the multicultural country it governs.
      But to others, Patel is an unsubstantive ideologue who has failed to live up to her own uncompromising rhetoric; a central character in Britain's untiring culture wars, once sacked for misleading her Prime Minister and investigated for bullying her staff, who remains politically bulletproof thanks not to her skills but her resolute commitment to Johnson's populist project.
      "She knows how to press the buttons of her supporters and of her opponents," Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University and the author of books on the Conservative Party and the rise of populism in Europe, told CNN.
      "In some ways, she symbolizes the polarization she's trying to create."

        Tough words but missed targets on migration

        Few politicians take on the job of home secretary with the expectation that they will be liked.
        The Home Office, which tackles migration, policing, terrorism and other elements of national security, "covers a lot of the most divisive briefs in politics -- and quite a number of occupants have become divisive figures," Rob Ford, a politics professor at Manchester University and the author of several books on British politics, told CNN.
        But Patel has shown a willingness to pick battles over unpopular pillars of politics. Wednesday's Channel tragedy places a spotlight once again on an issue with which she has become synonymous: illegal migration into Britain, and more widely, the government's treatment of migrants, asylum-seekers and foreign nationals who seek to relocate in the UK.
        Priti Patel is pictured during a visit to the Border Force facility in Dover, Kent, in September.
        "She speaks the language of the socially conservative right very fluently," Ford said. "It's not the first language of Boris Johnson," but Patel's "nationalistic, threat-focused, sometimes authoritarian worldview" has endeared her to large segments of the Conservative grassroots, he said.
        It riles up opponents in equal measures. On Thursday Labour MP Zarah Sultana wrote that Patel "ended safe routes for refugees. She consistently demonises them ... She's disgraceful."
        Human rights lawyer Shoaib M. Khan accused her of "repeating dangerous myths" about asylum seekers. Last month, when it was reported that Patel is planning a purpose-built reception center for migrants that would require them to follow strict rules, Khan added: "I could ask this about every single Priti Patel plan, but what possible purpose can this serve?"
        Patel said on Wednesday that the disaster "serves as the starkest possible reminder of the dangers of these Channel crossings organized by ruthless criminal gangs." In Parliament on Thursday, she said there is "no quick fix" to the issue of illegal migration, calling the incident "a dreadful shock" but "not a surprise."
        French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Friday revoked his invitation for Patel to join a meeting in Calais on Friday, after Johnson wrote and released to the media a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron calling on him to take back migrants who travel to the UK by boat.
        Patel has frequently vowed fresh crackdowns on such journeys, and has touted Brexit as an opportunity to take control of migration into Britain. In late 2019, she pledged with French ministers to reduce Channel crossings by half in a matter of months, and make them an "infrequent phenomenon" by the end of 2020.
        But they have instead increased on her watch; more than