Priti Patel is quietly becoming the favorite for the next Tory leader

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Priti Patel is quietly becoming the favorite for the next Tory leader

Priti Patel is quietly becoming the favorite for the next Tory leader (alamy)

7 minutes reading

With many Conservatives resigned to the fate of being removed from office at the next election, a number of MPs appear to have focused their energies on supporting a future leadership bid in the inevitable event that Rishi Sunak were to resign.

But while the likes of Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt and Suella Braverman have long been in the mix, a new favorite is beginning to emerge as someone who can appeal to both a highly factional parliamentary party and its members, who tend to tend further to the right. : Dame Priti Patel.

Unlike Mordaunt, who is also popular with grassroots Tories, Patel has a relatively good chance of returning as MP for Witham in an election in which few Tory seats are considered safe. While Braverman, a similarly hardline former home secretary, has appealed to members and MPs on the right of the party, she has alienated her party’s more moderate members in a way that Patel appears to have avoided. Badenoch, who is vying for the leadership in 2022, also commands the respect of a wide range of Tories but may lack enough loyalty to secure a place in the final vote. Patel made a name for himself as a Boris Johnson loyalist and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in honor of his resignation.

“She does not come from the left of the party at all, but could be acceptable to parts of it because she is widely seen as a responsible figure,” said Lord Goodman, former editor of ConservativeHouse said.

He described Patel as a “straight shooter” with a reputation of being widely trusted.

“She also has the advantage, in the event of a strong reform vote, of having good relations with Nigel Farage, and a history of supporting the Referendum Party at the time,” Goodman added.

“She could plausibly present herself as the candidate who could best unify the divided right.”

Former immigration secretary Robert Jenrick has also recently made efforts to win the hearts and minds of his party’s right, but chances are the Tories will be keen to appoint their fourth female leader, not least because it will give them a will provide a useful tool. to defeat Keir Starmer-led Labor from the opposition benches. Despite having long had more female MPs than the Conservatives, Labor has never been led by a woman.

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Patel, the eldest daughter of Ugandan-Indian immigrants, has been characterized by her cheerleaders as a conviction politician with deeply held small ‘c’ conservative beliefs. She supported Brexit during the 2016 EU referendum told Sunday times’ Tim Shipman at the time that her acute sense of Euroscepticism stemmed from the fact that Britain was forced to withdraw from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday in 1992. She said the economic impact nearly “destroyed” her family.

When the Tory leadership was last contested in 2022, initially won by Liz Truss and ultimately by Sunak after staying in office for just 49 days, Patel did not stand as a candidate. A former cabinet colleague said: “She probably read that it probably wasn’t her time.” But a close ally insisted she would have had enough support to get through the first round of voting.

Patel has since deftly distanced himself from Truss’s lurid adventure in office, which is widely believed to have been the final straw for many former Conservative voters, whose high mortgages and distrust of recent governments have caused them to reject the party.

“Liz and Priti are colleagues, they are not friends,” a source close to Patel said PoliticsHome.

Several Conservative MPs said Patel has remained a regular at parliamentary tea rooms since leaving government in 2022, where she is often seen networking with colleagues.

A former foreign secretary who served in the Cabinet alongside Patel told the story PoliticsHome she had done well not to make any enemies since joining the backbenches.

“Essentially, she has been quite astute over the past year and has quietly gone about her work as a constituency MP,” they said.

“At times she was very helpful and supportive of the government, but also available to colleagues. None of it was flashy, none of it was for the leadership.”

Allies say Patel has decided to make targeted interventions since she has taken a backseat, only sticking her head above the ground on issues she truly believes in. In parliament and on social media she is seen as helpful to the government, including by Tory MP Simon Clarke accuses of “engaging in easy and divisive self-indulgence” when he called for Sunak’s removal from Downing Street.

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“She is seen as mature and pragmatic compared to other MPs, especially those who run for leadership before it has even started,” said another Patel ally. “[Priti] is less focused on making headlines and more on getting things done, which is recognized across the party.”

However, one Tory source was more skeptical that her apparent party loyalty was selfless, noting that while she had refrained from criticizing the government, she had also done little to actively defend it. “She is mysteriously absent from the airwaves,” they said.

Patel’s popularity among Tory members could also be invaluable as the party struggles to maintain its financial security if it goes into opposition and immediately becomes a less attractive investment. A Tory MP said this PoliticsHome they believed it was “obviously” that there would be a problem with donors after the election, and that this should be factored into their choice of a new leader.

“If Labor has a big win you will see the money dry up,” they said. “One thing we know about Priti is that she is exceptionally popular with the members, and she is exceptionally popular with the donors.” In particular, they felt that she had proven that she was “a pretty big hit on the dinner circuit” and could reliably sell out a 300-seat event.

But while Patel is seen as popular in parliament and with the Tory hardcore outside of it, there is some doubt she is the right person to rehabilitate the party’s image among the general public.

“I love Priti but I don’t see her as a leader,” said one Tory MP.

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Whether she can shake off significant political baggage is cause for concern for some. In 2017, Patel was forced to resign as International Development Secretary by then Prime Minister Theresa May after she failed to announce unofficial meetings with Israeli ministers.

She was also the victim of allegations of bullying during her time as Home Secretary. In 2020, Sir Philip Rutnam, the former permanent secretary, resigned from the civil service and said he would sue the government over the way he was treated. He claimed he had been the victim of a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” by Patel and accused her of bullying staff, which she strongly denied. Rutnam received a payout of £340,000, plus his legal costs, after it was agreed he had been unfairly dismissed. A subsequent government investigation concluded that Patel had breached the ministerial code, after allegedly finding evidence of bullying, but the findings were rejected by Johnson and Patel kept her job as home secretary.

Patel’s political colleagues have tried to defend her. “She is a very nice person,” a former minister who worked under Patel told PoliticsHome. ‘She is very thoughtful and caring for others. If you look around, you will find plenty of stories of a civil servant or an MP who was ill and suddenly found small gift packages from her.”

But crucially, it is uncertain whether Patel even wants the job. She refused to talk PoliticsHome for this story. Whoever becomes the next Tory leader will most likely inherit a traumatized and exhausted party, whose most pessimistic models suggest they could retain fewer than 100 seats in opposition.

“I would be shocked if she ran,” said one Tory MP. ‘But I personally would like it’

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