Priti Patel – a Biography

Priti Sushil Patel (born 29 March 1972) is a British politician who has served as Secretary of State for the Home Department since 2019 and the Member of Parliament (MP) for Witham since 2010.

She served as Secretary of State for International Development from 2016 to 2017.

Patel is a member of the UK Conservative Party, she is ideologically positioned on the party’s right wing and considers herself to be a Thatcherite.

Patel was born in London to a Ugandan-Indian family.

She was educated at Keele University and the University of Essex.

Inspired to get involved in politics by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she was initially involved with the Referendum Party before switching allegiance to the Conservatives.

Patel worked for the public-relations consultancy firm Weber Shandwick for several years, as part of which she lobbied for the tobacco and alcohol industries.

Intending to switch to a political career, she unsuccessfully contested Nottingham North at the 2005 general election. After David Cameron became Conservative leader, he recommended Patel for the party’s “A-List” of prospective candidates.

She was first elected MP for Witham, a Conservative safe seat in Essex, at the 2010 general election, before being re-elected in 2015 and 2017.

Under Cameron’s government, Patel was appointed Minister of State for Employment and served as vice-chair of the Conservative Friends of Israel. She attracted attention for her socially conservative stances.

A longstanding Eurosceptic, Patel was a leading figure in the Vote Leave campaign during the build-up to the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the European Union.

Following Cameron’s resignation, Patel backed Theresa May as Conservative leader; May subsequently appointed Patel Secretary of State for International Development.

In 2017 Patel was involved in a political scandal involving unauthorised meetings with the Government of Israel, ending her tenure as International Development Secretary.

Under Boris Johnson’s premiership, she became Home Secretary in 2019.

Early life

Priti Patel was born on 29 March 1972 to Sushil and Anjana Patel in London. Her paternal grandparents were born in Tarapur, Gujarat, before emigrating to Uganda, and establishing a shop in Kampala.

In the 1960s her parents immigrated to the UK and settled in Hertfordshire, several years before President Idi Amin came to power and expelled Ugandan Asians in 1972. They established a chain of newsagents in London and the South East of England.

Patel attended Watford Grammar School for Girls, before studying Economics at Keele University and then pursuing postgraduate studies in British Government and Politics at the University of Essex.

The Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher became her political heroine: according to Patel, she “had a unique ability to understand what made people tick, households tick and businesses tick. Managing the economy, balancing the books and making decisions – not purchasing things the country couldn’t afford”. She first joined the Conservative Party as a teenager, when John Major was Prime Minister.

Early career

After graduating, Patel became an intern at Conservative Central Office (now known as Conservative Campaign Headquarters, CCHQ), having been selected by Andrew Lansley (then Head of the Conservative Research Department).

From 1995 to 1997, Patel headed the press office of the Referendum Party, a single-issue Eurosceptic party.

In 1997, Patel left to join the Conservative Party having been offered a post to work for the new leader William Hague in his press office, dealing with media relations in London and the South East of England.

In August 2003, the Financial Times published an article citing quotes from Patel and alleging that “racist attitudes” persisted in the Conservative Party, and that “there’s a lot of bigotry around”.

Patel wrote to the FT countering its article stating that her comments had been misinterpreted to imply that she had been blocked as a party candidate because of her ethnicity.

In 2000 Patel left the employment of the Conservative Party to work for Weber Shandwick, a PR consulting firm. According to an investigative article published by The Guardian in May 2015, Patel was one of seven Weber Shandwick employees who worked on British American Tobacco (BAT) – a major account. The team had been tasked with helping BAT manage the company’s public image during the controversy around the Burma factory being used as source of funds by its military dictatorship and poor payment to factory workers. The crisis eventually ended with BAT pulling out of Burma in 2003. The article went on to quote BAT employees who felt that though a majority of Weber Shandwick employees were uncomfortable working with them, Patel’s group was fairly relaxed. The article also quoted internal documents specifying that a part of Patel’s job was also to lobby MEPs against EU tobacco regulations. She worked for Weber Shandwick for three years.

Patel then moved to the British multinational alcoholic beverages company, Diageo, and worked in corporate relations between 2003 and 2007.

In 2007, she rejoined Weber Shandwick as Director of Corporate and Public Affairs practices. According to their press release, during her time at Diageo, Patel had “worked on international public policy issues related to the wider impact of alcohol in society.”

Parliamentary career

Member of Parliament for Witham: 2010–present

In the 2005 general election, she stood as the Conservative candidate for Nottingham North, losing to the incumbent Labour MP Graham Allen.

Despite her unsuccessful parliamentary campaign, Patel was identified as a promising candidate by new party leader David Cameron, and was offered a place on the “A-List” of Conservative prospective parliamentary candidates (PPC).

In November 2006, she was adopted as the PPC for the notionally safe Conservative seat of Witham — a new constituency in central Essex created after a boundary review — before gaining a majority of 15,196 at the 2010 general election. She was drafted into the Number 10 Policy Unit in October 2013, and was promoted as Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury the following summer.

Britannia Unchained

Along with fellow Conservative MPs Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, Patel was considered one of the “Class of 2010” who represented the party’s “new Right”. Together they co-authored Britannia Unchained, a book published in 2012. This work was critical of levels of workplace productivity in the UK, making the controversial statement that “once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world”. The authors suggested that to change this situation, the UK should reduce the size of the welfare state and seek to emulate the working conditions in countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea rather than those of other European nations.

The 1922 Committee

In the same year, 2012, Patel was elected on to the executive of the 1922 Committee.

In October 2014, Patel criticised the plan of the Academies Enterprise Trust to merge the New Rickstones and Maltings Academies, claiming that to do so would be detrimental to school standards.

Links to India

Patel lodged a complaint with the BBC alleging one-sided coverage critical of Narendra Modi on the eve of his victory in 2014 Indian elections. In January 2015, Patel was presented with a “Jewels of Gujarat” award in Ahmedabad, India, and in the city she gave a keynote speech at the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce.

2015 General Election

In the general election of May 2015 — a Conservative victory — Patel retained her parliamentary seat with 27,123 votes, increasing her majority by 4,358.

During the campaign, she had criticised Labour Party rival John Clarke for referring to her as a “sexy Bond villain” and a “village idiot” on social media; he apologised.

After the election, Patel rose to Cabinet-level as Minister of State for Employment in the Department for Work and Pensions, and was sworn of the Privy Council on 14 May 2015. In December 2015, Patel voted to support Cameron’s planned bombing of Islamic State targets in Syria.

Brexit campaign: 2015–2016

Following Cameron’s announcement of a referendum on the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union (EU), Patel was widely touted as a likely “poster girl” for the Vote Leave campaign.

Patel said that the EU is “undemocratic and interferes too much in our daily lives”.

She publicly stated that immigration from elsewhere in the EU was overstretching the resources of UK schools.

She helped to launch the Women For Britain campaign for anti-EU women; at their launch party, she compared their campaign with that of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragettes, for which she was criticised by Emmeline’s great-granddaughter Helen Pankhurst.

Post-Brexit – Rise to Cabinet

Following the success of the “Leave” vote in the EU referendum, Cameron resigned, resulting in a leadership contest within the party.

Patel openly supported Theresa May as his successor, claiming that she had the “strength and experience” for the job, while arguing that May’s main challenger Andrea Leadsom would prove too divisive to win a general election. In November 2017, Patel was critical of the UK government Brexit negotiations and stated: “I would have told the EU in particular to sod off with their excessive financial demands”.

Secretary of State for International Development: 2016–2017

After becoming Prime Minister, in July 2016 May appointed Patel to the position of International Development Secretary. Patel described herself as being “delighted” with the post despite a statement made in 2013 suggesting that the Department for International Development (DFID) should be scrapped and replaced with a Department for International Trade and Development.

Many staff at the department were concerned about Patel’s appointment, both because of her support for Brexit and because of her longstanding scepticism regarding international development and aid spending.

On taking the position, Patel stated that too much UK aid was wasted or spent inappropriately, declaring that she would adopt an approach rooted in “core Conservative principles” and emphasise international development through trade as opposed to aid.

In September, Patel announced that the UK would contribute £1.1 billion to a global aid fund used to combat malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS, but added that any further aid deals would include “performance agreements” meaning that the British Government could reduce aid by 10% if specific criteria were not met by the recipient country.

In September 2016 she expressed opposition to the construction of 28 affordable homes at the Lakelands development in Stanway, referring to it as an “unacceptable loss of open space” and criticising Colchester Borough Council for permitting it. That same month, the council’s chief executive Adrian Pritchard issued a complaint against Patel, claiming that she had acted “inappropriately” in urging Sajid Javid to approve the construction of an out-of-town retail park after it had already been rejected by Colchester Council.

Also in September, proposals were put forward for a change to the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies across the UK. As a result of the plans, Patel’s seat of Witham would be merged with neighbouring Maldon. This would potentially require her to compete against Maldon MP John Whittingdale for the new seat of Witham and Maldon.

Patel was critical of the UK’s decision to invest DFID funds to support the Palestinian territories through UN agencies and the Palestinian Authority. In October 2016 she ordered a review of the funding procedure, temporarily freezing approximately a third of Britain’s aid to the Palestinians during the review. In December 2016, DFID announced significant changes concerning future funding for the Palestinian Authority. DFID stated that future aid would go “solely to vital health and education services, in order to meet the immediate needs of the Palestinian people and maximise value for money.” This move was widely supported by Jewish groups, including the Jewish Leadership Council and the Zionist Federation.

In January 2017, Patel and the Labour MEP Neena Gill were the two UK winners of the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, the highest honour that the Indian government gives to non-resident Indians or people of Indian origin. She was given the award for her public service. In the June snap general election, she was re-elected as MP for Witham with a majority 18,646 votes.

Conservative Friends of Israel

On 3 November 2017, the BBC’s Diplomatic correspondent James Landale broke the news that Patel had held meetings in Israel in August 2017 without telling the Foreign Office. She was accompanied by Lord Polak, honorary president of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI). The meetings, up to a dozen in number, took place while Patel was on a “private holiday”. Patel met Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid party, and reportedly made visits to several organisations where official departmental business was discussed. The BBC reported that “According to one source, at least one of the meetings was held at the suggestion of the Israeli ambassador to London. In contrast, British diplomats in Israel were not informed about Ms Patel’s plans.”

It was also reported that, following the meetings, Patel had recommended that the Department for International Development give international aid money to field hospitals run by the Israeli army in the Golan Heights. Although these hospitals have been described by the British Prime Minister’s official spokesman as “provid[ing] medical support for Syrian refugees”, Israeli officials have refused to identify who they treat in them, and whether they are regime forces, rebels or civilians. Western media reports suggest that Israel is aiding and funding Syrian opposition organisations in the Syrian civil war.

On 4 November 2017, in an interview with The Guardian, Patel stated

“Boris [Johnson] knew about the visit. The point is that the Foreign Office did know about this, Boris knew about [the trip]. I went out there, I paid for it. And there is nothing else to this. It is quite extraordinary. It is for the Foreign Office to go away and explain themselves. The stuff that is out there is it, as far as I am concerned. I went on holiday and met with people and organisations. As far as I am concerned, the Foreign Office have known about this. It is not about who else I met; I have friends out there.”

Patel faced calls to resign, with numerous political figures calling her actions a breach of the ministerial code, which states: “Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise”.

Labour MP Jon Trickett said, “She met with the prime minister, and all sorts in Israel, with a lobbyist – I don’t think it is good enough to apologise as I really think this is a serious breach of the ministerial code. The Prime Minister really should be sacking her, or at the very very minimum referring it to the Cabinet Office for investigation”.

On 6 November, Patel was summoned to meet the Prime Minister Theresa May, who then said that Patel had been “reminded of her responsibilities” and announced plans for the ministerial code of conduct to be tightened. Patel released an apology for her actions, and corrected her remarks to The Guardian, which she said gave the false impression that the Foreign Secretary knew about the trip before it happened, and that the only meetings she had had were those then in the public domain. According to Downing Street, May learned of the meetings when the BBC broke the story on 3 November.[64] When May hosted Netanyahu the previous day for the Balfour Declaration centenary, she was not aware that her minister had had meetings with him in August.

In the days after Patel’s meeting with the Prime Minister and public apology, there were further revelations about her contacts with Israel, including details of two more undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials in Westminster and New York in September 2017, that Patel had not disclosed when she met the Prime Minister on 6th. As a result of these further revelations Patel was summoned to Downing Street once more on 8 November, where she met with the Prime Minister and subsequently resigned from her cabinet position, after 16 months in the post. She was replaced by pro-Brexit MP Penny Mordaunt the following day. Patel claimed that, following her resignation, she was “overwhelmed with support from colleagues across the political divide” and from her constituents.

Backbencher: 2017–2019

In May 2018, Patel questioned the impartiality of the Electoral Commission and called for it to investigate Britain Stronger in Europe or to end its inquiry into the Vote Leave campaign. Patel expressed concern that Britain Stronger in Europe had been provided with services by other remain campaigns without declaring the expenditure in the appropriate way.

In August 2018, the Electoral Commission reported that there was no evidence that Britain Stronger in Europe had breached any laws on campaign spending.

In December 2018, during the UK’s Brexit negotiations, a government report was leaked which indicated that food supplies and the economy in the Republic of Ireland could be adversely affected in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Following the report, Patel commented: “This paper appears to show the government were well aware Ireland will face significant issues in a no-deal scenario. Why hasn’t this point been pressed home during negotiations?” Some sections of the media reported her comments as a suggestion that Britain should exploit Ireland’s fear of damage to its economy and food shortages to advance its position with the EU. She was criticised for insensitivity by several other MPs in the light of Britain’s part in Ireland’s Great Famine in the 19th century, in which a million people died. Patel said her comments had been taken out of context.

Irish EU Commissioner Phil Hogan said that a food blockade would result in Britain starving, not Ireland, since 43% of food consumed in the UK comes from Ireland.

Journalist Eilis O’Hanlon criticised the media’s characterisation of Patel’s comments as a “manipulative, sinister media-manufactured campaign of character assassination”, further elaborating that the “divide between fact and comment broke down entirely in response to Priti Patel’s comments.”

In February 2019, Patel tweeted supportive messages for Turning Point UK.

In March 2019, Patel backed a pamphlet published by the TaxPayers’ Alliance which called for the international development budget to be reformed, and for the UK alone to decide what constitutes aid, rather than international organisations.[79]

Home Secretary: 2019–present

Patel was appointed Home Secretary by Boris Johnson in July 2019.

Shortly after her appointment, news had transpired that, in May 2019, Patel began working for Viasat as a strategic adviser on a salary of £5,000 a month for five hours’ work a month, without seeking prior approval from the government’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, leading to accusations that she has broken the ministerial code for a second time. In the December general election, she was re-elected as MP for Witham with an increased majority of 24,082 (48.8%) votes.

In January 2020, a report by the Youth Empowerment and Innovation Project said that Patel’s approach to tackling youth radicalisation was “madness” and the Home Office had been “disengaged”.

In February 2020, Patel launched a points-based immigration system, which will take effect from 1 January 2021. The system will aim to reduce the number of cheap and low-skilled workers immigrating to the UK whilst attracting the “brightest and the best” from countries around the world.

That same month she came under scrutiny for trying to “force out” Sir Philip Rutnam, the most senior civil servant in her department.

Rutnam resigned on 29 February, saying he would be suing the government for constructive dismissal and that he did not believe Patel’s assertion that she had been uninvolved in an alleged campaign briefing against him.

Political ideology and views

Patel is considered to be on the right-wing of the Conservative Party, with the Total Politics website noting that some saw her as a “modern-day Norman Tebbit”.

In The Guardian, the economics commentator Aditya Chakrabortty characterised her as “an out-and-out right-winger” who has no desire to “claim the centre ground” in politics.

Patel has cited Thatcher as her political hero, and has described herself as a “massive Thatcherite” (“I apologise to no one for that”), with various news sources characterising her as a Thatcherite, and while profiling Patel for The Independent, Tom Peck wrote that she “could scarcely be more of a Thatcherite”.

She has also previously served as a vice-chair of Conservative Friends of Israel.

She has taken robust stances on crime, garnering media attention after she argued for the restoration of capital punishment on the BBC’s Question Time in September 2011, although in 2016 she stated that she no longer held this view.

Patel opposes prisoner voting.

She has also opposed allowing Jeremy Bamber, who was convicted of murder in her constituency, access to media to protest his innocence. Patel voted against the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which introduced same-sex marriage in England and Wales.

Patel has been criticised by some for raising issues in the House of Commons related to her time working for the tobacco and alcohol industries. As a parliamentarian, Patel has been consistently supportive of tobacco industry viewpoints: in October 2010, she voted for the smoking ban to be overturned; in December 2010, she signed a letter requesting that plain packaging for cigarettes be reconsidered. Patel has also campaigned with the drinks industry, holding a reception in parliament for the Call Time On Duty Campaign in favour of ending the alcohol duty escalator supported by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, the Scotch Whisky Association and the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Speaking on BBC Radio Kent in March 2018, Patel said that she found the commonly-used abbreviation BME (for Black and Minority Ethnic) to be “patronising and insulting”. This was because being born in Britain, she considered herself British first and foremost.

Personal life

Patel has been married to Alex Sawyer since 2004. Sawyer is a marketing consultant for the stock exchange NASDAQ. He is also a Conservative councillor and Cabinet Member for Communities on the council of the London Borough of Bexley. Sawyer also worked part-time as her office manager from February 2014 to August 2017. Together they have a son born in August 2008.