It is a while since I wrote anything about Priti Patel, and I had thought I had drawn her once. I cannot find any record, so here goes.
Hers is not currently an attractive story. Indeed, it has been brewing for a while with leaks about Ms Patel’s abrasive style coming out quite regularly since the new government took shape and certainly since the Boris’ re-shuffle. Of course, Boris likes her, but that may not be enough…
A week ago, the Metro lead with a story about “An atmosphere of fear”. Apparently, a senior Whitehall official collapsed in a meeting about the deportation of 25 people back to Jamaica (Whether we have got immigration right or wrong is quite another matter and I will return to this, I promise). the unnamed official was taken to hospital with a sodium deficiency. The metro article went a little further and quoted a source specifically saying,
‘The Home Office is dysfunctional and the current permanent secretary had presided over a sacking of a home secretary and accidental deportations. ‘If this were any other environment Philip Rutnam would not only be sacked he’d be denied a pension. The lack of accountability in the civil service is deeply troubling and the prime minister will not accept this in the long term.’
This is nasty. It may not even be Priti Patel’s doing, but her behaviour seems to have sparked off the spatt. Further problems were envisaged by the Metro about “the points-based system”
Leaders in agriculture, hospitality and the care system were among those who warned of serious staff shortages proposed by the new rules.
I have my own concerns about a “points’-based system” (my apostrophe). I do not believe, just to start the ball rolling, that there really are 8 million “economically inactive” people in the UK ready to take up the jobs currently being done by low-skilled immigrants, though I concede there may well be 8 million economically inactive individuals for one reason or another -um… students, the sick, unpaid carers.
Not only would we have to find and encourage these 8 million. We would also have to get them to move to the places where the jobs can be done. You cannot do most of the unskilled work from a laptop on a day away from the office at home. These people would need to be on-site, in the hospitals, police-stations, factories and so on. Logistics not mere head-count!
It is always a shame when people believe that the best way to look strong is to bully the help. Now, the actual consequences of Priti Patel’s actions seem to be emerging with the resignation on spectacularly nasty terms of her Permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, who resigns after 33 years as a civil servant, has gone public and writes,
“In the last 10 days I have been the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign. It has been alleged that I have briefed the media against the Home Secretary. This along with many other claims is completely false….The Home Secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office. I regret I do not believe her….The Home Secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office. I regret I do not believe her. She has not made the effort I would expect to dissociate herself from the comments.”
He pulls no punches and makes it quite clear that the buck stops with the Home Secretary herself. He will claim constructive dismissal.
But to put it into perspective: the Home Office has been a dodgy camp for a while now. I had a nasty run-in myself a few years’ ago about student visas, first with Andrea Leadsom and then with Mrs May, both abrasive encounters. The way the HO is led sets the tone for everyone else both in the Ministry and beyond. We should not be surprised, therefore, that telephone exchanges with almost any official, from the tax office to the bank, routinely field our calls by haughtily “explaining” their policies rather than answering a direct question. It is rude, condescending and it is officious (a tricolon and no oxford comma, Mr Pullman). It might even be called bullying, but this is a tone that has routinely been adopted by the Ministers running the HO. All bureaucrats look up to the mother of parliament to see how things are done and this, evidently, is the example they get. This is what they follow. It is now in print for us all to monitor: but to her credit, and in her defence, Priti Patel seems no better and no worse than Mrs May.
On election night, I ran into Amber Rudd who also gave such a very charming and considered performance that I wrote her a brief note of congratulation. I cannot believe that she would have behaved as Priti Patel is alleged to behave, though she resigned because of the Windrush scandal. So, maybe the HO itself is not to blame.
The problem with Priti Patel’s alleged form of aggressive leadership is that no one is there to protect her back, as Mrs May also found out to her cost, and that cost may get bigger with publication of the investigation into Windrush. If all the staff are busy second-guessing what the Minister might say and how she might bark at them – as Priti is alleged to do at this Ministry, what abusive language she may have in store for them (as rumours have it), then nobody is going to be protecting her from error, nobody is watching out for her – in fact, her staff would probably celebrate her errors. Of course, there is a difference between being demanding and being a bully and Mr Patel has moments of humanity – she has observed, for instance, that under the new proposals her own “Ugandan Asian parents” would not have made it through UK immigration at all.
A good friend suggests one very interesting test- the most efficient leader chairs brief and effective meetings. I have a giggling recollection of the lengthy talks that went on in Chequers over some of Mrs May’s Brexit plans- the length of her meetings was reported as a mark of pride. Whoops! Monumental fail there!
The statements appearing in the press look damaging to Mr Patel, more so even than the allegations against Mr Bercow, though one whistle-blower like Rutnam could lead to a “Metoo” movement across Whitehall and beyond. After all, there is already a popular call to tear up NDAs.
I have seen bullying a few times, sadly. This sort of leader will always be exposed- but often long after the real damage is done, to other people as well as to herself. We need to work in a team to get the job done and for any system to work well; care of each other needs to be built into the work-place not tagged on to HR; we must find support wherever it should be. In the light of this story, I wonder whether Mr Cummins might be heading in the same direction – though his goal appears quite different even if his manner apparently also invites concern.