Labour is picking the wrong fight with Priti Patel

24 July 2021

3:45 PM

24 July 2021

3:45 PM

The position of Home Secretary Priti Patel is clearly untenable. Presumably this means she must resign. Who says so? Why, only her Labour shadow Nick Thomas-Symonds. At least, he has said the first bit from which we can infer the second.

And what has reduced Patel to this miserable status in his eyes? Could it be the fact that 18 months after she first promised to halt the cross-Channel boats that spill migrants onto our shores, there are more of them arriving than ever?

No, not a bit of it. Thomas-Symonds is not interested in that. In fact, whenever he and the Home Secretary debate migration policy she runs enough rings around him to decorate an Olympic flag. Her disabling sin in his eyes is that she has fallen out with the Police Federation of England and Wales, the coppers’ trade union.

Like Theresa May, Jack Straw, Jacqui Smith and many other home secretaries before her, Patel has said stuff that has rendered high-ups in the Fed – who are seldom to be confused with rays of sunshine – far from gruntled.

Their main bone of contention with her is that she has just announced a pay freeze for officers earning more than £24,000 a year and justified it in plain and honest terms. In a written ministerial statement, Patel said:

‘This is in order to ensure fairness between public and private sector wage growth, as the private sector was significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic in the form of reduced hours, suppressed earnings growth and increased redundancies, whilst the public sector was largely shielded from these effects.’

All of which is true. But Federation national chair John Apter has responded with stinging criticism, saying:

‘As the organisation that represents more than 130,000 police officers I can say quite categorically: we have no confidence in the current Home Secretary. I cannot look my colleagues in the eye and do nothing.’

His National Council has backed him by ‘overwhelmingly’ supporting a vote of no confidence in Patel and calling for a new process for setting pay.

So far, so unsurprising: public sector trade union leadership reacts adversely to wage restraint imposed by ministerial boss. On the scale of extraordinary events, this is much more dog bites man than man bites dog.

Yet Thomas-Symonds has chosen to weigh in with a doctrine that implies maintaining the support of union leaders is a pre-requisite for a minister to carry on in office.

‘The Home Secretary’s position is clearly untenable, and the police deserve nothing less than urgent action from the Prime Minister and this government. This must include opening negotiations on a fair police pay rise and work to reconstitute the Police Covenant,’ he said. In a letter to Patel, he added that police representatives are ‘deeply hurt by the final offer’.

This posturing by Thomas-Symonds shows just how far Labour has regressed since it was last entrusted with the reins of power. Back then it had senior figures who understood some self-evident truths: public administration necessitates tough decisions. Policy cannot responsibly be handed over to producer interest groups but must be determined according to what a minister thinks is in the public interest overall.

Patel is currently going through a phase when she has displaced the Prime Minister as public enemy number one of the metropolitan left. The pro-Brussels propagandists at the New European have just run a highly personal hatchet piece on her, headlined ‘A Nasty Piece of Smirk’, illustrated with unflattering photographs and branding her the ‘poster girl for our poisonous politics’.

What seems to have provoked their ire is the typically straightforward way in which Patel opposed the England football team’s knee-taking, which she correctly described as ‘gesture politics’, as well as her bid to get a grip on irregular migration.

During her two years in office, Patel has also been subjected to horrible cartoon depictions that many have found racist and misogynistic. She has also come up against attempts by senior officials to frustrate her decisions.

None of this will overly bother her. More dangerous by far to her ambitions is the gradual ebbing away of goodwill towards her on the part of right-of-centre voters, frustrated by her failure to actually deliver more rigorous immigration control. It remains to be seen whether her new Nationality and Borders Bill will do the trick, or whether she needs to persuade the Prime Minister that Britain must opt out of a thicket of international agreements that limit its ability to take effective action.

The ritualised gripings of the Police Federation may have prompted a new round of huffing and puffing from Labour, but both will be water off the proverbial duck’s back to the Cabinet’s most ideologically driven minister.

This Home Secretary’s position will only become untenable if Tory voters or the Prime Minister himself turn against her.

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