Priti Patel is enjoying herself. The Conservatives have won the election, she has become Minister of State for Employment and she keeps saying how “energised” she feels.
Yesterday morning she rose at 4.30 in order to do a series of interviews for breakfast television, followed by a series of interviews for radio, followed by this, the first interview she has given to a journalist who is going to write down what she says.
The purpose of her outpouring of words is to publicise the Government’s announcement of free childcare for 30 hours a week. But although the former ConHome columnist managed, in the course of our conversation, to explain the reasoning behind this hand-out, that was by no means the most interesting thing she said.
Patel’s forcefulness springs from the remarkable directness with which she relates her family’s experiences to her political beliefs. The Employment Minister has practised what she preaches: she knows something about hard work.
ConHome: “Who are your heroes, apart from Margaret Thatcher?”
Patel: “I’m not a complicated individual on that basis. Politically, Margaret Thatcher absolutely, for what she achieved and the transformation of the country.”
ConHome: “You were born in 1972 so in 1979 you were seven. Can you remember her coming in?”
Patel: “I can still remember some of the pictures on the screens, because my Dad, my Dad in particular, my family were very aware because of their own background in particular, persecuted in Uganda. They were thankful they came to a country that gave them the freedom to succeed. And that freedom to succeed was at the heart of Conservative values.”
ConHome: “Just tell me a bit about the persecution in Uganda. Did they have a business there?”
Patel: “It was less my parents, it was their parents in particular, so my grandparents’ generation. I never got to see my grandfather, my Mum’s Dad, because the whole experience, it was too much for him, so he died, I can’t remember, either late Sixties or early Seventies.”
ConHome: “In Uganda?”
Patel: “In India, but it was because of what had happened to him. He’d had a bad fall and then his health deteriorated and all this kind of stuff in Uganda.”
ConHome: “What was his occupation?”
Patel: “He was a businessman. So he had tea factories, cotton plantations, coffee plantations as well. My grandfather was incredibly well known in Uganda. R U Patel, a very pious man, so always giving back to the community, very religious, a big Swaminar in the Hindu community.
“I think the trauma, it was just incredible for my entire family, for my Mum’s family in particular. My Dad’s family were shopkeepers as well. Everyone in that era of East African Asians was hugely displaced, hugely displaced, their rights taken away from them, and they were persecuted for what they had.
“It was all about what they had, never about the contribution they could make. The scars of that and the trauma for that generation were so huge that when they came to Britain, with absolutely nothing, first of all they were thankful for the opportunity to come somewhere, and it was tough.
“My Mum still tells the story, she couldn’t understand why she’d just come from East Africa and the country couldn’t keep its lights on.”
ConHome: “Oh yes, it was the three-day week.”
Patel: “Exactly. And why there was rubbish piling up. The term to use was I think dysfunctional.”
ConHome: “The Seventies were a bad decade. First the Tories failed and then Labour failed.”
Patel: “And it was from a people point of view just deeply challenging. You know, hostile, immigrants coming in, really, really difficult. I was born in Islington, in Highbury, and my Mum and Dad rented a room off an elderly man in Finsbury Park, and that’s where we lived.
“Typically in Indian culture, if you’re the eldest you bear the burden of everything else in terms of family responsibility. So my Dad, who’s the eldest, he’s got a brother and two sisters, did the right thing, he had to think about looking after his Mum and Dad and his brother and sisters.
“So my Dad dropped out of university to just get a job, basically, to get cash wherever he could, low-skilled work, just to build up pots of money to get some security. So he then helped my grandfather, his Dad, to buy a shop in Tottenham, Number One, White Hart Lane.
“That was a newsagent. That gave my grandparents the footing to get on. My Dad became a shopkeeper as well. My parents have been self-employed like that for over 40 years. So I effectively grew up on top of a shop for most of my life. So we’ve done everything from newspapers to post offices to small supermarkets.”
ConHome: “So presumably you started work very early in the morning, to get the newspapers ready.”
Patel: “Oh yes. My Dad would be up at four in the morning every day. And my Dad did that up until about four years ago. I mean that’s hard graft, incredibly hard graft. So I’ve grown up with that.”
ConHome: “These businesses must be terribly afflicted by the collapse of the newspaper business.”
Patel: “So they’ve been treated badly, outside the collapse of newspapers, by newspaper distributors, so they’ve always been held to ransom, by it used to be W H Smith or Menzies, they’ll prioritise the larger shops over independent retailers, which if you’ve got a newspaper round that you need to get out in the morning can be deeply unhelpful.
“So I’ve spent plenty of mornings delivering newspapers, opening up newspaper bundles, putting Sunday supplements into newspapers on Saturday afternoons, and also going to cash and carry and doing all that kind of stuff as well.”
ConHome: “What is the Conservative case for making 30 hours of childcare a week free?”
Patel: “Well I think it’s about supporting individuals. We’ve lost sight of that whole piece about empowering individuals and how we support individuals in particular to get back to work.”
ConHome: “But one’s instinct as a Conservative is that if you want something, you pay the fair price for it.”
Patel: “Which people do as well, obviously, but also the Conservative aspect is about choice, bringing in that choice as well when it comes to childcare, the choice of going back to work as well, supporting those that might not want to work full-time but might want to work part-time as well, giving them choice in terms of balancing out their caring responsibilities.
“It’s what you need in the labour market as well, to facilitate getting more people back into work too, which is obviously central to what I’m doing. But also as I said it’s about supporting individuals who because of the cost of childcare, have been cut out of that marketplace as well.”
ConHome: “Particularly at the beginning, when you often don’t earn very much.”
Patel: “And it depends on where you are in the country too, because the costs vary. When I last purchased childcare in a nursery setting about three and a half years ago, it was over £800 a month. So if you are low-income, not in employment but trying to get employment, that cuts you out of the marketplace completely.”
The Employment Minister has not yet had time to choose works from the Government Art Collection to adorn her office at the Department of Work and Pensions. But she does already have three or four pieces by her six-year-old son, Freddie, including a powerful representation of Big Ben.
Patel, who lives in outer London and is MP for Witham, in Essex, went on: “That’s just an illustrative point about the cost of childcare. Which is why we are absolutely committed to doing more to help parents, working parents in particular – those that have not been able to work because of their caring responsibilities. Something like 70 per cent of parents have cited in the past that it’s caring responsibilities that have stopped them getting into work.”
ConHome: “Will the practicalities be all right? It’s a very big expansion, isn’t it?”
Patel: “It is, and it’s important that we get this right. There’s a lot of detail here.”
ConHome: “We’re going to have welfare cuts. Where are these cuts going to fall? Are young people getting a raw deal?”
Patel: “I look at this from rather a different point of view. Over the past five years we have reformed welfare, and that was long overdue. We inherited a welfare system that quite frankly was broken and dysfunctional.
“This isn’t about cuts or reform, this is about looking at individuals and people and seeing what is it we can do to support them, yes in terms of getting back to work, but also from that personal point of view how we invest in people, through skills, through opportunities, through giving them that sense of value.”
ConHome: “Obviously this can be discussed in a technocratic way, and it’s very important to get the technical details right, but it’s really a moral thing, isn’t it? It’s to instil the moral attitude of wanting to work…”
Patel: “I actually think it’s about individuals and their contribution as well. How we can empower them to get on in life. If you think about the manifesto commitment that we stood on in the general election, it was about aspiration, it was positive, it was about hope, and that is absolutely the mission of this Government, to create the right kind of conditions for those individuals – for people to pick up, or seek to pick up, whether its employment, whether it’s education, skills and tools that will benefit them in the long run.”
ConHome: “What’s the difference, not having the Lib Dems?”
Patel: “I think it’s tremendous.”
ConHome: “What will you now be able to do?”
Patel: “Well I think it’s a) about what we can now do. But the fact is during the election campaign, I was one of those people boring for Britain, every media interview that I did, people saying ‘Oh there’ll be a hung parliament’, and of course I was defying that, and saying very publicly, ‘We are fighting for a Conservative majority government’.
“And now we feel liberated in that sense. The public voted for us and they supported our manifesto programme. So it is a liberating moment that we can just concentrate on getting on and do exactly what we said we would do.
“We weren’t able to do that back in 2010. Just the ability to come in to government and hit the ground running: that is the most energising piece of being in government.”
ConHome: “Yes, you don’t look tired. Quite a lot of people still look tired from the election campaign.”
Patel: “It was exhausting, absolutely exhausting.”
ConHome: “Does anyone in the Labour Party seem to understand what you’re doing?”
Patel: “They lost the opportunity: they had 13 years, and they hate it when we say this and remind them of it. They had 13 years and they took the country backwards. They did nothing in the space of welfare. They did nothing in the space of work. They did zero in the space of childcare. We are clearly the party for working families and working people.”
ConHome: “They will be hunting now for hard cases.”
Patel: “They like to shroud-wave. It doesn’t help to inform the debate and it certainly doesn’t help to inform policy and decision-making.”
ConHome: “Your predecessor Esther McVey, there were some horrible attacks on her. Have you suffered anything like that?”
Patel: “Well we get the standard hate mail.”
ConHome: “Has anyone called for your lynching?”
Patel: “I can confirm we’ve had hate mail. I think as a public figure, abuse is just standard.”
ConHome: “It’s part of our tradition.”
Patel: “It’s part of the wallpaper of what we do in public life. We live in a free society. I believe in freedom of speech. You know, the public are entitled to their views. Let’s hope [she laughs] they’ll be slightly more informed in their views, rather than just going to the inbox and writing a lot of abusive comments.”
ConHome: “You seem almost amused.”
Patel: “I think the reality is that all public figures are subject to scrutiny.”
ConHome: “Is it tougher as a woman, or not really? Though actually Iain Duncan Smith had a terrible time when he was leader of the party.”
Patel: “I think all politicians get it. I genuinely believe that. I think everybody gets it. When there are serious abuses that come through then the authorities, the Serjeant at Arms, people will have to look into them.”
ConHome: “You mean actual death threats, that sort of thing?”
Patel: “Exactly. But I just take the view we are in the public domain, we are public figures, I think it’s inevitable almost. It’s not going to stop me from doing what I’m doing.”
ConHome: “This is an incredibly optimistic time to be a Conservative. What do you think about the way the press got the election result wrong?”
Patel: “During the election campaign I had people on the doorstep saying they were really quite cross about being told what the outcome of the general election was going to be before they’d even voted.
“Wherever I went, the public were just so anti-Labour, that had not been captured by the pollsters. People were very clear about the fact that we had started the job over the last five years and needed to carry on doing much of what we were doing before.
“I’ve been up since 4.30 this morning. I left home at 5.20. I did all the sofa stuff this morning. I’ve done the breakfast TV, then the Today programme, then a load of radio.
“Then we went on a lovely visit to a nursery. It’s just an energiser at the start of the day, to see these wonderful, wonderful children who are just fizzing with energy, in these lovely colourful environments.
“I’ve still got blue paint stuck in my nails from hand painting this morning. That is absolutely our motivation. How we can create better futures and better outcomes for those children.”