By Alex Marsh
“We renew our place as the party of law and order in Britain.” You would think that the irony of these words, spoken by Priti Patel to the Conservative Party Conference in 2019, would be self-evident in light of the release of a report into historic bullying allegations against the Home Secretary. Apparently, not so for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who told the Commons last Wednesday that he made “no apology for standing by Priti Patel”.
His dismissal of a report, which concluded that Ms Patel, during her tenure at three different Government departments, breached Britain’s Ministerial Code through her behaviour towards officials, is incongruous with the claim that his party is committed to rooting out wrongdoing across the country. The optics of such a move are hardly improved by the release of the report during the UK’s AntiBullying Week.
The dissonance between what members of the government say, and what they do has hardly ever been so apparent.
Priti Patel’s misconduct is not an isolated incident. As International Development Secretary, she was forced to resign in 2017 by Prime Minister Theresa May after it was revealed she had held unauthorised meetings with Israeli politicians.
This is also not the only recent incident of wrongdoing within his ranks that the Prime Minister has ignored. In March, Boris Johnson had a simple message for UK citizens to tackle the coronavirus pandemic – “you must stay at home”. Less than a month later Dominic Cummings, a senior advisor to the Prime Minister, was not forced to resign despite it being revealed that he had broken the national lockdown to travel to his parents’ home in County Durham.
Priti Patel’s misconduct is not an isolated incident
The lack of accountability faced by the closest members of Mr Johnson’s circle lays bare his governing principle – one rule for his ministers and supporters, another for the rest of us. Any other employee would have been fired for behaviour similar to that exhibited by Ms Patel towards her officials, many other Brits were fined for lockdown breaches similar to that of Mr Cummings.
But, aided and abetted by her party, as well as the right-wing press, Ms Patel has thus far managed to fend off calls for her resignation. Conservative MPs practically tripped over themselves rushing to the Home Secretary’s defence on Twitter, with Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons, tweeting that “Priti is an asset to government”.
All these defences, including Ms Patel’s own, that the negative consequences of her behaviour were ” unintentional” , undoubtedly do enormous damage to our democracy. Protesting Ms Patel’s innocence on account of ignorance, stature or personal experience, fails to acknowledge the way power dynamics favour those who are most prominent within government. Only if the Prime Minister is prepared to hold his ministers accountable to the codes of conduct that check abuses of power can he prevent a collapse in confidence in our country’s leadership.
By not forcing the Home Secretary to resign, Boris Johnson has privileged the ideological allegiance Ms Patel has lent him over her questionable ministerial conduct and bullying ways, abandoning his moral duty at a time of national crisis. If it were ever gone, there can now be no doubt that the ‘Nasty Party’ is well and truly back.
There can now be no doubt that the ‘Nasty Party’ is well and truly back
The lack of remorse from the Home Secretary for her actions, and the Prime Minister’s unwillingness to hold her accountable for them, is unsurprising considering his government’s track record. Upon assuming office in July 2019, Johnson promised to defend the interests “of the forgotten people and the left behind towns”. To the contrary, favouritism and cronyism run rife – the National Audit Office has found that suppliers of PPE were ten times more likely to win government contracts if they had close connections to senior politicians.
Far from seizing the moment “to give strong leadership”, the Prime Minister has chosen to do nothing, exposing himself as a leader concerned only with the interests of the most well connected and the most powerful in our society.
Image by UK Prime Minister via Creative Commons