(Leon Neal/Getty Images)

A Priti pass

The Home Secretary ought to be up to the job

There was a time when the Home Secretary was one of the most important jobs in government. Prime ministers appointed the kind of people to the role who they knew would be able to handle themselves in the midst of the worst kind of crisis. Before Theresa May trashed her own reputation in her three years at Number 10, she made it over the course of six years at the Home Office.

The truth will set you free, if you ignore it

Priti Patel’s time in the job is not so far following that course. It hasn’t helped that, for much of last year, she seemed to be in hiding, while Boris Johnson looked for a way of avoiding dealing with a finding that she had bullied her staff. Finally, in November, he hit on the characteristic strategy of simply accepting the finding but doing nothing about it. The truth will set you free, if you ignore it.

All of which of course made Patel the perfect person to front a press conference about the importance of sticking to the rules. Again we are forced to consider the possibility that Johnson isn’t so much running the country as preparing a massive performance art exhibit for Tate Modern’s 2022 programme.

Patel was stern. After reading out a seven-digit number, just to show that she could, she had a warning for the nation. “A minority of people are putting the health of the nation at risk by not following the rules,” she said. “My message today to anyone refusing to do the right thing is simple: have you thought of going into politics?” (I may have imagined part of that.)

She was joined by Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs Council. “A stubborn number of people have refused to abide by the regulations,” he said. “Let me give just a few recent examples. A boat party in Hertfordshire with more than 40 people who’d paid £30 each for a ticket. In Surrey we issued a £10,000 fine to the organiser of a party who tried to claim it was a business event. And one woman even launched a diplomatic mission to Israel and attempted to pass it off as a family holiday.” (Again, it’s possible he didn’t say the last sentence.)

And then it was over to questions. Ian from Preston had a straightforward one: “If the new Covid variant is more infectious than it was last March, why are the new Covid rules more relaxed?”

“Let me start off with that first of all,” Patel said, before completely ignoring the question. “Our message is absolutely crystal clear. It is to stay at home. This isn’t about rules being more relaxed. We have clear rules.” There was more, much more, along these lines, but answer to Ian came there none.

Next, Diane in York wanted to know when key workers who weren’t in healthcare would get the vaccine. Patel thanked her – “it’s a really important question, actually” – before not answering it, actually. That’s not because the answer is a secret: the government has published its vaccination plan and it’s safe to say that the answer to Diane’s question is “probably not for some months”.

Did Patel know this? Cabinet was briefed by Zoom on the vaccine roll-out this morning. But from the home secretary’s answer, it seemed possible that she’d turned her camera off and nipped away to make a cup of tea during that bit. Or solve a half century regional geopolitical dispute, if she was out of milk.

Patel seems genuinely not to understand questions: this is rare in a top rank politician

“We are looking at those on the front line,” she said. “We’re absolutely working to make sure we can get the vaccine to them. That means working with the JCVI.” For the benefit of those not familiar with the government’s alphabet soup of advisory bodies, she was talking about the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. For those who may not have got round to reading their December report yet, they’ve said that they won’t in fact be offering a view on which jobs should get priority, as that’s a decision for ministers. Including, probably, the Home Secretary. Who knows?

The BBC tried Ian’s question again: if things are worse now than last March, why are the rules less tight than they were then? “We are speaking consistently and constantly about staying at home,” Patel replied, if the definition of “reply” can encompass answering a totally different question. “The rules are actually very simple and clear.”

To go back to where we came in, if a politician isn’t comfortable explaining why the government has reached the policy it’s reached, they shouldn’t be in the Cabinet. There are probably plausible reasons to have different rules this time, but maybe Patel was doing her Ocado order during that discussion.

On and on we went. She had been clear that everything was clear and that message was now clear. Exercise was important, and so was staying local, and so was being clear, and that was something about which she had been very clear.

It was so bad by the end that the audience may even have been missing the candour of Boris Johnson

The usual reason that politicians avoid questions is that they don’t know the answers or they think the answers will embarrass them. Patel seems genuinely not to understand questions: this is rare in a top rank politician. It’s unfair to accuse someone of evasion when they don’t know what they’re doing. But it was so bad by the end that the audience may even have been missing the straightforward candour and on the ball detail of Boris Johnson. Perhaps that’s the idea? He didn’t become prime minister by not knowing the benefit of other people not knowing things.

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