Priti Patel’s supporters and opponents are at odds on almost everything, but at one on her popularity among Conservative activists. Though even this claim, if our monthly survey of Party activists is anything to do by, isn’t quite what it seems.
The Home Secretary’s rating in this site’s Cabinet League Table has tended to track the channel migrant boats, or at least the publicity that they attract. For most months since the last election, she has stayed in the top seven, reaching the top five in five of the last eleven months – scores underpinned by her status as a long-standing Brexiteer.
But in May, she came in fourteenth, in September tenth and in August eighth. That’s a measure of member unhappiness with the Government’s failure to stop illegal entries – as the Home Office, like the Minister who leads it, thrashes about in the tangle of political, legal, ethical and administrative cords from which the Government is incapable of escaping, unwilling to free itself from, or both.
Oddly enough, the institutional weakness of the department which a former Home Secretary labelled “not fit for purpose” is actually helping Patel to weather the current storm. “The Home Office was not as flexible as it could have been in responding to the Home Secretary’s requests and direction. She has – legitimately – not always felt supported by the department,” Sir Alex Allen wrote in his report.
He also said that “no feedback was given to the Home Secretary of the impact of her behaviour, which meant she was unaware of issues that she could otherwise have addressed”. If other sections of Sir Alex’s findings will be helpful to Sir Philip Rutnam, the department’s former Permanent Secretary who resigned and is now suing the Government, these ones won’t be.
Sir Philip was in place when Amber Rudd resigned for misleading a select committee over the Windrush contretemps: she blames him for not providing her with the correct information. Rudd was the third Home Secretary in the last ten to have been forced out. Her predecessor, Theresa May, was on her fourth Permanent Secretary when she moved from Marsham Street to Downing Street.
If the plight of the Home Office is one factor shoring up Patel (since fellow Tory MPs from all parts of the party believe that it remains unfit for purpose) her sex and ethnicity is another (since successive Conservative leaders have been set on promoting women and members of ethnic minorities rapidly – and the Prime Minister won’t want to lose the most senior person in Cabinet who meets both criteria).
There is also a sense among Conservative MPs that the Home Secretary, who “effectively grew up on top of a shop for most of my life”, and whose parents were “very aware because of their own background in particular, persecuted in Uganda”, is an icon of British success – able to knock Labour MPs off their moralistic perch and embarrass Keir Starmer in the process.
Neither Home Office failure nor her Indian background is the point, Patel’s critics argue. They say that Sir Alex has found both her guilty of bullying and in breach of the Ministerial code. But his report doesn’t quite say the first thing and heavily qualifies the second – to the point where it is made into a nonsense.
“Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals,” writes Sir Alex. We would have thought that bullying requires intent. “To that extent her behaviour has been in breach of the Ministerial Code,” he continues, before wrapping his conclusion in a mystery: “even if unintentionally.”
So apparently Patel should resign because she may have broken the code unintentionally. This is such a draconian interpretation of a tentative conclusion that one wonders why Sir Alex has felt it necessary to resign himself. Are all breaches of the code automatically to result in dismissal?
If so, it follows that most, if not all, members of the Cabinet will have to go, along with Patel – as will those who made up Theresa May’s, David Cameron’s, Gordon Brown’s, Tony Blair’s and John Major’s (the Prime Minister who first published the Code). At least, they will have to do so if its core elements haven’t changed.
“There must be no bullying and harrassment,” the Prime Minister’s introduction to the Code declares. Its very next sentence is: “no leaking”. But they all leak! (Most of them, anyway.) “No breach of collective responsibility,” the Code goes on. But as Henry Hill pointed out on this site yesterday, four Cabinet ministers abstained last year during a vote on a motion to rule out a No Deal Brexit.
None of them quit. More to the point, no-one asked them to – under the terms of the Code, at any rate. “Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise [our italics], between their public duties and their private interests,” the Code declares, thus writing into a formal document considerations that are ultimately political.
For who can make such a judgement bar the Prime Minister, who appoints Ministers, or Parliament, which can declare that it has no confidence in them – or the voters at a general election? This brings us closer to the heart of the matter, which is helpfully set out in Appendix A of the Code.
This declares that Ministers are expected “to observe the Seven Principles of Public Life”, the first of which is: “holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest”. (This comes under the sub-heading: “selflessness”. There are six others, one of which is “objectivity” – a principle impossible to reconcile with the partisan nature of political life.)
So on second thoughts, those Cabinet Ministers will definitely all have to go, just as their predecessors should have gone. No Cabinet member or former member who ever walked the earth has not, at some point when considering an important decision, mulled its possible effect on their party’s interest, not to mention their own.
The more one thinks about it, the more one comes to see that the Code is an uneasy compromise between constitutional fact (that the Prime Minister is “the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards) and a body of people who are referred to just after that first reference to the seven principles.
Namely, “our much-admired civil service”, in the words of the Code. Or perhaps, if we are to be strictly accurate, what Cobbett called “The Thing”, since Sir Alex was not, strictly speaking, a civil servant in his role as the independent adviser. Though The Thing certainly includes parts of the civil service, such as the Director General of the Propriety and Ethics Team (now Helen McNamara; formerly Sue Gray).
But it stretches wider. The Thing is the Electoral Commission, government suppliers, Ofqal, defence procurement. Maybe some sort of written code is inevitable in modern government. But let no-one pretend that the Ministerial Code is some kind of sacred text, the most minor breach of which must result in dismissal, as if the most minor breach of the law were to require a life sentence.
Gordon Brown threw Nokia phones about. John Hoskyn complained that Margaret Thatcher was a bully. Margaret Beckett let the rat out of the bag when she said of John Bercow that Brexit considerations trumped “bad behaviour”. Perhaps this background explains why Labour has been relatively quiet about the Patel case. It knows a power grab when it sees one.