News Item: UK’s Patel under fire over Ukraine refugee policy
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s hard line on immigration would, she admits, have stopped her own parents coming to Britain.
Now the British interior minister is under growing fire for her department’s chaotic response to Ukrainian refugees.
Patel has floundered in parliament, giving out misleading information about the status of Ukrainians stuck in France, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has side-stepped her by appointing a new refugees minister.
The response has been “a complete shambles that is diminishing our reputation across the world”, Labour leader Keir Starmer said Thursday, as Patel unveiled yet another change to visa requirements for Ukrainians.
Church leaders and refugee rights campaigners, angered already at Patel’s management of migrants trying the often deadly passage of the Channel from France, have also weighed in.
But Conservative lawmakers have been scarcely less critical after a series of hurried policy U-turns in response to public opinion, which polls suggest is firmly in favour of letting in more Ukrainians.
It all amounts to a marked decline of fortunes for Patel, 49, once a darling of the right, who has survived one sacking from government and a damning internal report into her alleged bullying of civil servants.
– Fleeing persecution –
A free marketeer and ardent backer of Brexit, Patel’s tough stance on immigration has been a hallmark of her time in charge of the Home Office despite her own family background.
When unveiling Britain’s new “points-based” immigration model on its exit from the European Union, Patel conceded on LBC radio in February 2020 that the system would have kept out people like her parents.
They are Gujarati Indians from Uganda who fled to Britain in the 1960s, shortly before dictator Idi Amin expelled Asians from the East African country, and set up a chain of newspaper shops.
Her political heroine Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a greengrocer, and Patel says she shares the former Tory prime minister’s devotion to small business, hard work and frugality.
“Coming from a country where you’re persecuted means that you want to work hard and to contribute to the society where you end up,” she said in a 2012 interview.
But Patel has also spoken of the casual racism she experienced growing up in Watford, north of London, which reinforced her determination to succeed, driven she says by her family’s Hindu values.
After university, she headed the press office for the short-lived anti-EU Referendum Party in the 1997 general election, before joining the Conservative leadership’s media operation.
Patel left in 2000 to work in public and corporate relations, including for drinks multinational Diageo.
– Freelance diplomacy –
Then Conservative leader David Cameron placed her on a so-called A-list of prospective MPs and put her into a safe seat in the 2010 general election, before appointing her a junior minister in 2014.
But while he tried to steer the Conservatives to more liberal territory, she voted against introducing same-sex marriage.
Patel then broke with Cameron to campaign for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, alongside Boris Johnson.
Cameron’s successor Theresa May made Patel international development secretary when she took office in July 2016. It was short-lived.
May sacked her in November 2017 after it emerged that Patel had pursued her own freelance diplomacy during a family holiday to Israel — including a meeting with then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — without notifying the Foreign Office or Downing Street.
But when he took over from May in July 2019, Prime Minister Johnson brought Patel back to the cabinet in an even more senior role, in charge of the sprawling Home Office.
While some cabinet members quailed at allegations of lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street, Patel has stood four-square behind Johnson.
Interviewed by Sky News in January, Patel said she “spends all my time day in, day out” in supporting the prime minister.
It remains to be seen if Patel’s loyalty will be returned, as the Ukraine crisis places her stewardship of the Home Office in jeopardy.