Analysis: From Day One, Priti Patel’s Ambition Was Plain For All To See

On Friday May 7 2010, as the country was coming to terms with the first hung parliament for a generation, a new Tory MP was making sure she was in front of the TV cameras.

Priti Patel had been elected as MP for Witham just hours before, but by that morning she had travelled from her Essex constituency to Westminster to make the most of the host of broadcasters positioned on College Green opposite Parliament.

Her first few hours as an MP were spent not with her constituents, but chatting with veteran journalists such as Andrew Neil –many of whom remember her from her time working in William Hague’s press office during the dark days of his party leadership.

But she was now in front of the cameras, and it was clear from day one that Patel was keen to portray herself as a politician on the rise.

That determination, self-belief and ambition are hallmarks of Patel’s character – and she used them to advance her career in Westminster.

Almost as soon as she was elected she was touted as future Cabinet minister, or even, perhaps, Tory leader.

As the daughter of Ugandan Indian immigrants, Patel projects a different look to the stereotypical pale, male and stale Conservative MP. Unlike those at the top of the party when she was elected, she did not travel the road of Eton then Oxford. 

<i>Priti Patel at the Conservative Party Conference in Bournemouth in 2002.</i>

Born in Hertfordshire, Patel went to Watford Grammar School for Girls where her contemporaries included future Labour leadership contender Liz Kendall and ‘Ginger Spice’ Geri Halliwell.

After attending Keele and Essex Universities, Patel’s first involvement in politics was not with the Tories, but with the oft-forgotten Referendum Party.

The organisation, bankrolled and led by Zac Goldsmith’s father James, had one policy – a referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU. Patel ran the party’s press office, but despite spending millions on campaigning it failed to win any seats in the 1997 election.

Having won Witham for the Tories in 2010, Patel quickly gained a reputation for her no-nonsense approach to politics, and her desire to take the fight to the Government’s opponents.

As one Tory MP put it: “The thing with her is she will cross the road to take an opportunity to stick it to the Labour Party.

“She’s always been very happy to defend what the party’s doing – that’s one of the things that’s definitely set her apart.”

Patel is a hardworking and focused local MP. I had just started a job at the Braintree and Witham Times when she was first elected in 2010, and found her cordial and professional to deal with. She was not one of those MPs you could have a laugh and a joke with, and was certainly more guarded with the press than some of her colleagues.

Her willingness to go into bat on behalf of her party was rewarded by David Cameron, who handed her a junior role in the Treasury in 2014 before making her Employment Minister – and allowing her to attend Cabinet meetings - in 2015.

Her earlier Eurosceptic streak never left Patel, and in February 2016 she was one of the Cabinet Six to walk out of Downing Street and join the Vote Leave campaign in the EU referendum.

Yet despite being initially touted as a potential leader of the Leave side, she was relegated to smaller appearances, with the then-unknown Andrea Leadsom pushed forward ahead of her during the crucial TV debates.

With the campaign focused on winning over swing voters, particularly in northern Labour strongholds, the pro-Thatcherite Patel who had backed cutting business regulations and shrinking the welfare state was not deemed the right fit.

In the referendum fall out she got behind Theresa May’s campaign early on, and was rewarded with the full Cabinet position she had craved – all be it at a department she had once called to be abolished.

<i>Priti Patel was one of the 'Cabinet Six' to campaign for Brexit.</i>

She kept her head down, but at this year’s Tory Party conference, with questions of May’s leadership circling, Patel delivered a speech in which she claimed “Conservatives do not talk Britain down” as she set her own ideology.

“We believe that wealth is created by people and enterprise. I believe in people, markets and freedom. This is what will genuinely serve the interests of the many and not the few.”

But the suspicion of Patel from some of her colleagues is that the interests she has always been primarily and almost unashamedly focused on are her own, and her actions over the summer may have proved them right.

The other accusation is that her ambition sometimes overreaches her ability, and her she is happy to put a few noses out of joint on the way to the top.

But it would be a brave commentator who writes off Patel’s chances of a comeback. If Liam Fox and Michael Gove were able to return to the Cabinet table, what is to stop one of the most determined and ambitious Tory MPs from doing the same.