Priti Patel: The Conservative party is retreating from the battle of ideas
Priti Patel fears her party’s leadership is abandoning traditional Conservative values and retreating from the battle of ideas. Out of government and with the freedom to speak from the backbenches, the Witham MP tells Sebastian Whale why it’s time to stop “moaning” about Brexit and start delivering for the country
“I’m a massive Thatcherite and I apologise to no one for that,” Priti Patel volunteers, as we arrive at the Warren Golf and Country Club in Witham. Given today’s uncertain political climate, some Conservative MPs might think twice before describing themselves in such terms. But not Patel.
She has invited me to join her in her Essex constituency at a location, which, despite being a drab and overcast day, remains one of the more picturesque courses on the circuit. These are plush surroundings, and Patel is a familiar figure to many who work at the estate so naturally no eyebrows are raised.
“I’m a proud Thatcherite, because she was in tune with the hopes and aspirations of the British public, not just when she became leader of the Conservative party but throughout her time in office,” Patel continues.
“Meritocracy, political and economic freedom, those should be the DNA of the Conservative party. Quite frankly, I don’t see much of that going on right now.”
My ears prick up at Patel’s tone. She became a Treasury minister in 2014 four years after becoming an MP, before moving on to the DWP and then the Cabinet as International Development Secretary in 2016. During this tenure, which came to a spectacularly public end last November, she earned her stripes as someone not likely to deviate from the official line.
It doesn’t take long to realise that she has some stuff to get off her chest.
“The party has just become the party of government, basically, consumed by administration, consumed by doing the job of government every single day, consumed by challenges,” she says.
“I personally think and I’ve seen this and I think this is wrong, that Brexit has sucked the intellectual lifeblood and capacity out of government and out of our politicians. I disagree with that fundamentally, on the basis that Brexit is a fantastic opportunity.
“The relentless negativity associated by politicians – actually, the establishment in Westminster and Whitehall – is dreadful. They should be at the forefront of being the advocates of change, taking on the reins of freedom, empowerment, meritocracy, looking at what that change could mean for our country. Sadly, we don’t see enough of that.”
Patel is particularly vexed by the lack of vision being set out by Theresa May on Britain’s future outside of the EU.
“I feel that what we’re seeing right now is the political establishment trying to take back control from the people by saying it’s too difficult, by kicking the can down the road, by some of the ridiculous suggestions that we will have extended transition and it will all be alright. This hokey cokey notion that we’ll have one foot in, one foot out, is simply not acceptable,” she says.
Patel continues: “We are the fifth largest economy in the world. I’m afraid people in our government, sadly, don’t behave that way. I don’t hear them talking up the economy, I hear too much relentless talking down. We’ve got great employment, we’ve had good economic fundamentals, good data. But I think we should still be pioneering.
“When we think about the Spending Review coming up, we are still facing the economic challenges. Debt is still far too high in this country.”
Here, she turns her attention to the Chancellor. “Debt is 85% of GDP, okay. So, it’s embarrassing. I think that’s embarrassing as Conservatives in government that it is at that level,” she says.
“Why are we saddling a new generation, a younger generation with debt? That is not a Conservative thing to do.
“What are we doing? We are kicking the can down the road, we are making ourselves exposed if there is a horrific economic shock, that’s not a good thing, that’s not the responsible thing to do.
“Our former leader [David Cameron] had a very good mantra in terms of fixing the roof when the sun was shining. That is in the DNA of the Conservative party. Margaret Thatcher was at the forefront of living within our means.”
Patel’s intervention comes as senior figures in the party, including Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, express support for increasing spending on the NHS over tax cuts. “I mean that’s wrong,” says Patel.
“We are talking about the principles of sound fiscal management. It should still be a priority in the Conservative party and it shouldn’t mean spending splurges, it should mean looking at the most unproductive parts of our economy, looking at how can we make it more productive. It also means looking at some of the detrimental taxes that prevent investment coming in to allow economic expansion.
“That’s where I think we’re simply failing. If you look around the world; Australia – tax cuts. America – tax cuts. Even France – even France – they’re moving away from some of their really regressive levels of taxation.”
She adds: “Political decision making is always falling on this default position that I think we are in right now, which is it’s going to be more intervention, more regulation, more taxes. None of that is the answer for the future of our country. We have to empower people more.
“We have to liberalise in terms of how we approach our economy, open up to new sectors, encourage more entrepreneurism. I don’t hear the ‘e’ word used in government at all anymore.”
The Conservative party, Patel continues, has become “very, very lazy” and “taken a lot for granted” over its recent history. The party should be at the “forefront of the new battle of ideas”, not taking the politically “lazy” decision to take Labour on in their space under Jeremy Corbyn, she adds. She also suggests the talent around the top table of government doesn’t match that of days gone by.
“Back in the 1980s with Thatcher, she had an incredible – look at the talent around her at the time. Some of the most iconic chancellors at the forefront of economic revolutions, basically. Deregulating, opening up our economy, the big bang in the City of London was transformational,” she says.
“We should be applying some of that all over again… But we’re retreating. We’re seeing global trade decline. We should be at the forefront of making the case of global trade.”
Patel remains remarkably focused, her words lucid and flowing. As though months after leaving Cabinet, she has been kept up at night, fine-tuning her pitch.
She rails against “undemocratic” peers for inflicting not one but 15 defeats on the EU Withdrawal Bill. She criticises the government’s lack of preparedness for the technicalities of Brexit. She fumes at the lack of debate on the future of the UK’s immigration policy, and slams the Tories’ “ridiculous” net migration target. She urges her colleagues not to defeat the government over Brexit, arguing it is “not viable” to do so given the manifesto they stood on last year. She admonishes the “uncertainty” created for business by not finding a solution to the customs union. Naturally, she also has an unfavourable word or two for the European Commission.
But her clearest message on Brexit remains for the government. “We hear marginal noises from only a couple of key Brexiteers in government. But where are the others? We need to hear stronger advocacy. We need to hear a better vision for the future. That would be helping to make the case. That’s where I think the government has not been punching above its weight.
“We are basically now at that two-year anniversary mark. Being bogged down in the minutiae is one thing. But moaning about Brexit in government and saying that it’s too difficult and talking down our country I think is actually quite shameful.”
Is the problem that you have two people at the top of government who didn’t vote for Brexit and cannot bring themselves to say the policy is a good idea? She pauses.
“I have to say, originally I thought it wasn’t. But I think it’s fair to say that there’s something in that. There is absolutely something in that,” she says.
“I actually resent the negativity. The role of Conservatives is to be aspirational and positive and be on the side of people, working to support people. In my view, politics is about putting people first.”
Can this renaissance of Conservatism that Patel longs for be achieved under the current leadership? “I think it has to be,” she says. “They’ve got to deliver for the country. It’s non-negotiable.
“They’re there and they’ve got to. This isn’t about moving chess pieces around, hoping for a better match next time round. This is not what this is about.
“That is about being a part of the art of the possible, being the agents of change, being the agents of meritocracy, freedom, aspiration, hope, the ladder of opportunity. Rather than, just, you know, it’s like going to a gig and being in the mosh pit basically, getting really ground down while there’s all this other stuff going on above your head. You’ve got to be out there, horizon scanning and making the weather.”
And if the Tories do not take action, would Labour then gain power? “Well, I think anything is possible. I’m not going to sit and say no, that will never happen. That’s wrong. Anything is possible.”
Of course, the elephant in the room is Patel’s resignation from the Cabinet. On holiday to Israel last summer, she held unofficial meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior politicians. She was ordered to fly back to the UK from a trip to Kenya after more details of her engagements emerged, with her flight tracked online by journalists and politicos alike. News broke of her looming Cabinet departure before wheels touched down at Heathrow.
“I’ll be very candid, it was horrific. It was absolutely awful,” says Patel when I recount the story. “It’s very personal and you’re in the middle of the cyclone and then suddenly the cyclone stops and you hit the ground, you pick yourself up and realise no one died, there was no bones broken and all this kind of stuff. You move on from that point.
“But I mean, of course, you know, it was awful. And that’s not going to change. But I would say and I do feel very strongly about this, certainly in my time in government, I was at the forefront of bringing in great change and I think there are other ways in which people like myself can contribute to change in politics too.”
Patel, who is the daughter of two shopkeepers Sushil and Anjana, who hail from Gurjarat, India, has been a member of the Conservative party for 30 years. While the Tories, in her eyes, are drifting away from the platform put forward by her political hero, Margaret Thatcher, she wants to play a leading role in bringing it back on track.
“I’ve been in the Conservative party a lot longer than many others that are sitting in Westminster right now,” she says.
“I still call myself an activist, a Conservative party activist, before I call myself a Conservative politician. I’m part of the DNA, my party and ideas and values. I’ve never moved away from that. Sometimes perhaps the party itself has moved away.
“So, I don’t know what the future will hold. But I am unrelenting when it comes to ideas. I’m unrelenting in terms of my own ambitions for my country. This is a country that is one of the freest in the world, it’s a fantastic country in terms of empowerment. The fact that somebody like me has had the privilege of being in government.
“The daughter of shopkeepers. I think that sends a very powerful message.”
This article has been amended. It originally stated that Ms Patel had resigned from government having “held unofficial meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior politicians, in breach of the ministerial code.” This was incorrect. Ms Patel was not found to have breached the ministerial code.