Depending on who you speak to, Priti Patel is either “not very bright” and doomed for the sack, or a “force of nature” who will survive, having shrugged off political storms and risen to a great office of state “essentially on willpower”.
One thing is for certain – the home secretary’s ability to attract controversy hasn’t stopped her meteoric rise since being elected as MP for Witham in 2010.
From being taken on as employment minister after co-authoring a book which described Britons as “among the worst idlers in the world”, to landing cabinet jobs at the international development department she wanted to abolish and heading the Home Office despite once supporting the death penalty, Patel’s career has raised eyebrows.
And while the bullying allegations mounting against her could be genuinely career-ending, many would still be reluctant to bet against a woman dubbed a “piranha” by her own husband (because she is “small and combative”).
Patel, 47, has of course been here before – forced to quit as development secretary in 2017 after freelance meetings with senior Israeli government figures including PM Benjamin Netanyahu while on a summer holiday in the country.
She attempted to ride out that storm but was rumbled when failing to disclose the full extent of the meetings to Theresa May.
Despite the rolling Brexit chaos that characterised May’s slow motion car-crash of a premiership, it was this incident that made the then-PM snap.
As her former press secretary Paul Harrison wrote recently: “May never succumbed to foul language even under the greatest of stress.
“However, the news I had just delivered – that ultimately saw Penny Mordaunt appointed international development secretary – led to probably the fruitiest expression I ever heard her say.”
It wasn’t the first time Patel had enraged a prime minister, either, having been given a furious dressing down by David Cameron for her role in Vote Leave in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum, which catapulted her into the limelight.
HuffPost UK understands that Cameron was exasperated with Patel’s role in the campaign because she was repeatedly attacking policies that featured in the Tory manifesto on which she had been elected just a year previously.
It eventually cost her promotion to the cabinet – as employment minister she would have been a natural replacement for Iain Duncan Smith as work and pensions secretary when he quit – because Cameron did not want to reward bad behaviour.
But Patel, true to form, was elevated to the cabinet by May within months.
This brings us to the latest debacle, which had its early peak with Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam’s explosive resignation on Saturday.
Like May swearing, Rutnam’s decision to turn down the offer of a six-figure payout in favour of quitting on camera and vowing to sue for constructive dismissal was unprecedented – and provoked by Patel.
Rutnam accused her of bullying staff, briefing against him, and lying about her role in it.
It came after HuffPost UK reported that Patel had attempted to sack the Home Office director of communications Andy Tighe on Christmas Eve and had Rutnam’s staff cut out of meetings.
Allegations that Patel is “brutal” with some staff at the Home Office, “berating and insulting” officials and branding them “useless and a joke” have also been raised with HuffPost UK.
She is said to have created a culture of fear that means officials are now afraid to challenge her or speak their minds because they are worried about being forced out like Rutnam.
And the claims show no sign of stopping, with the BBC reporting that a former aide to Patel received a £25,000 payout after taking an overdose following bullying by the then-employment secretary in 2015.
Fresh allegations have also emerged of Patel bullying staff around the time of her resigning from the department for international development.
As those new claims emerged, a spokesman for the home secretary said she “categorically denies” them.
But one senior former government adviser believes Patel’s position is now untenable.
“No.10 told everyone to call off the dogs of war on Rutnam on Monday but she was still actively encouraging it,” they say.
“The problem for her is the machine will probably do her in in the end.
“She’s not that bright and, as you know, at the Home Office you get blamed for all kinds of things that aren’t your fault.”
The ex-adviser concedes that in her desire to replace Rutnam, seen by some in Whitehall as a “nightmare” who “unnecessarily blocks stuff”, Patel was probably “on the right side of the argument” but was “going about it the wrong way” with her briefing campaign.
“In her defence I have not heard a single good thing about Rutnam from a variety of people – from other ministers who worked at the department who are measured individuals. Spads [special advisers] think he’s a complete arsehole and quite vindictive,” they say.
But with Rutnam now out of the picture, Patel’s former chief of staff James Starkie believes Boris Johnson, who launched a full-throated public defence of the home secretary at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, and his aide Dominic Cummings will not want to lose her.
Starkie, who says he has never seen Patel bullying staff, says: “Of course she’s going to survive – I don’t think there’s any doubt.
“Boris backs her 100%. Dom gets on with her really well.
“I don’t understand on what basis she would go right now.
“It’s unfortunate the way it’s panned out, but equally I don’t see why you would now get rid of her. I think that she’s done everything that’s been asked of her [and] I think she’s done it well so I don’t see her going any time soon.”
Allies, meanwhile, believe the home secretary’s “ballsy” and “clear ideological” approach make her a “target”.
Advisers are said to have been surprised at how Patel has defied their expectations and got across a complex and demanding brief at the Home Office – where she has dealt with terror attacks, post-Brexit immigration policy, controversial deportations and more.
She is said to work “very hard” seven days a week, save for the odd week off with the family.
But ultimately friends feel the Witham MP is treated unfairly.
A former adviser told HuffPost UK: “Because she uses quite simplistic language that common people use, she has that Essex twang, I think people judge her.
“If you sit in a meeting she will be pushy with officials – ‘what’s happening with this?’, ‘why haven’t I got this?’, ‘I need this now’.
“But that’s from the Cummings school of thinking – officials are sat around the table with the home secretary, people’s safety is in their hands, if they are asked to do something they should just do it.”
‘She’s like Thatcher’
Despite her humble beginnings as the daughter of Ugandan Asian refugees who went to a comprehensive school, Patel has always been reluctant to hold herself up as a role model for young women or ethnic minorities.
As one ally says, she believes she has succeeded “essentially on willpower” and does not like people using their background “as an excuse”.
“She’s like Thatcher – you should just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get on with it,” they said.
The daughter of Gujarati Indians who fled Uganda for the UK as refugees in the 1960s, Patel was born in London on March 29, 1972.
She was educated at the comprehensive Watford Grammar School before studying economics at Keele University followed by postgraduate study in government and politics at the University of Essex.
Patel spent a number of years in lobbying and public affairs with Weber Shandwick, where her clients controversially included British American Tobacco, and later worked as a policy adviser for Diageo.
Patel was elected as Witham MP in 2010 and appointed a Treasury minister in 2014, employment minister in 2015, and international development secretary in 2016 before quitting the following year.
She returned to the cabinet under Johnson as home secretary in July 2019.
If she survives the sack this time, what comes next?
“I think she’s definitely thinking about having a tilt at the leadership,” the ex-advisor said.
“When she resigned from DfID she spent the whole time going around the country on the rubber chicken circuit [appearing at local party events] and there’s only one reason why you are doing that.
“The party love her because of her very strident pro-Brexit views and ‘hang ’em and flog ’em’ attitude.”
This also makes her a useful asset for Tory PMs.
“But Boris Johnson has got such a thumping majority – does he need her?”
One close ally does not believe Patel harbours leadership ambitions, claiming: “She’s one of the only people in cabinet who believes Boris does a better job of being PM than she could.”
There is also a feeling that she has an inner steel that may come from being an ethnic minority woman who has risen almost to the top of the white, male-dominated world of Westminster that helps her recover from setbacks more easily than others.
Starkie says: “She’s a force of nature – she just doesn’t stop. She’s got a real belief in herself, so I think once she has a knock or two she keeps going.”
But with a potential employment tribunal looming, an alienated Home Office staff, and a Cabinet Office investigation, Patel may have suffered a knock too hard.