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Priti Patel Is Quietly Becoming The Favourite For Next Tory Leader

Priti Patel is quietly becoming the favourite for the next Tory leader (alamy)

7 min read

With many Conservatives now resigned to a fate of being ousted from office at the next election, a number of MPs seem to have diverted their energy to shoring up a future leadership bid in the inevitable event of Rishi Sunak standing down.

But while names including Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt and Suella Braverman have long been in the mix, a new favourite is starting to emerge as someone who could appeal to a deeply factional parliamentary party as well as to the membership, which tends to skew further right: Dame Priti Patel. 

Unlike Mordaunt, who is also popular with grassroots Tories, Patel stands a relatively strong chance of being returned as the MP for Witham in an election where few Tory seats are considered safe. While Braverman, a similarly hardline former home secretary, appeals to members and MPs on the right of the party, she has alienated more moderate members of her party in a way that Patel seems to have avoided. Badenoch, who competed for the leadership in 2022, also commands the respect of a broad range of Tories, but perhaps lacks firm enough allegiances to secure a place on a final ballot. Patel made her name as a Boris Johnson loyalist and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in his resignation honours. 

“She's not at all from the Left of the party, but might be acceptable to parts of it, since she's widely seen as a responsible figure,” Lord Goodman, former editor of ConservativeHome said.

He described Patel as a “straight shooter” with a reputation for being widely trusted.

"She also has the advantage, in the event of a strong Reform vote, of having good relations with Nigel Farage, and a history of supporting the Referendum Party in its time,” Goodman added. 

“She could plausibly present herself as the candidate who could best unify a divided right."

Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick has also recently made efforts to win the hearts and minds on the right of his party, but there is a strong chance Tories will be keen to appoint its fourth female leader, not least because it will give them a convenient stick to beat Keir Starmer-led Labour with from the opposition benches. Despite having long had more female MPs than the Conservatives, Labour has never been led by a woman. 

The eldest daughter of Ugandan-Indian immigrants, Patel is characterised by her cheerleaders as a conviction politician with deep-rooted small ‘c’ conservative beliefs. She vocally backed Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum, and told The Sunday Times' Tim Shipman at the time that her acute sense of Euroscepticism stemmed from the UK being forced to pull out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday in 1992. She said that the economic impact almost “destroyed” her family.

When the Tory leadership was last contested in 2022, won initially by Liz Truss, and then ultimately by Sunak after she lasted a mere 49 days in office, Patel did not run. A former cabinet colleague said “she probably read it probably wasn't her time”. But a close ally insisted she would have had enough support to make it past the first round of voting.

Patel has since deftly distanced herself from Truss’s lurid adventure in office, which is widely believed to have been the final straw for many former Conservative voters, whose inflated mortgages and distrust of recent Governments has caused them to reject the party.  

“Liz and Priti are colleagues, they are not friends,” a source close to Patel told PoliticsHome. 

Several Conservative MPs said that since leaving Government in 2022, Patel remains a regular in parliamentary tea-rooms, where she is often seen networking with colleagues. 

One former secretary of state who served in the cabinet alongside Patel, told PoliticsHome she had done well to avoid making enemies since joining the backbenches. 

“Fundamentally, she's been quite clever over the past year just quietly getting on with doing a job of being a constituency MP,” they said.

“At times, she’s been quite helpful and supportive to the Government, but also available to colleagues. None of it has been showy, none of it has been for the leadership.”

Allies say Patel has decided to make targeted interventions since sitting on the backbenches, and only raises her head above the parapet on causes she truly believes in. In Parliament and on social media she is viewed as being helpful to the Government including by accusing Tory MP Simon Clarke of "engaging in facile and divisive self indulgence" when he called for Sunak’s removal from Downing Street. 

“She’s seen as grown up and pragmatic compared to other MPs, particularly those who are running for the leadership before it’s even started,” another ally of Patel's said. “[Priti] is less focused on making headlines and more on getting things done, which is recognised across the party.”

One Tory source, however, was more sceptical that her apparent party loyalty was selfless, noting that while she had refrained from criticising the government, she’d also done little to actively defend it. "She has been mysteriously absent from the airwaves," they said. 

Patel’s popularity with the Tory membership could also prove invaluable as the party scrambles to maintain its financial security if it enters opposition and immediately becomes a less attractive investment. One Tory MP told PoliticsHome they believed it was “abundantly clear” there was going to be an issue with donors after the election, and that this needed to be factored into their choice of a new leader. 

“If Labour win big, you're going to see money dry up,” they said. “One thing we know about Priti is that she is exceptionally popular with the membership, and she’s exceptionally popular with the donors.” In particular they felt she had proven she was “a pretty big hit doing the dinner circuit” and could reliably sell out a 300-seat event. 

But while Patel is seen as popular in parliament and with the Tory hardcore outside it, there is some doubt that she is the right person to rehabilitate the party’s image with the wider public. 

“I like Priti, but I don’t see her as a leader,” said one Tory MP.

Whether she could shake off significant political baggage is cause for concern among some. In 2017 Patel was forced to resign as international development secretary by then-prime minister Theresa May after she failed to declare unofficial meetings with Israeli ministers. 

She was also subject to bullying allegations during her time as home secretary. In 2020, Sir Philip Rutnam, the former permanent secretary, resigned from the civil service and said he would sue the government over the way he was treated. He claimed he had been the victim of a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” from Patel and accused her of bullying staff, which she strongly denied. Rutnam received a £340,000 payout, plus his legal costs, after it was agreed he was unfairly dismissed. A subsequent Cabinet Office inquiry concluded that Patel broke the ministerial code, having reportedly found evidence of bullying, but the findings were dismissed by Johnson, and Patel kept her job as Home Secretary. 

Political colleagues of Patel have sought to defend her. “She’s a very nice person,” a former minister, who worked under Patel, told PoliticsHome. “She’s very thoughtful, very caring of others. If you dig around, you'll find plenty of stories of a civil servant or an MP who was ill, and suddenly found little gift packages from her.”

But crucially, it’s uncertain whether Patel even wants the job. She declined to speak to PoliticsHome for this story. Whoever becomes the next Tory leader will most likely inherit a traumatised and depleted party, which the most pessimistic modelling suggests could retain fewer than 100 seats in opposition.

“I would be shocked if she ran,” one Tory MP said. “But I would like her to, personally,” 


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