East meets Westminster: Young, Asian and female - Essex MP Priti Patel is modern face of the Tories
PROUDLY standing outside the meeting room in the ultra-modern Portcullis House beside the newly renamed Elizabeth Tower – which houses Big Ben – is a bust of Baroness Margaret Thatcher.
As Witham’s often outspoken yet always engaging MP Priti Patel strides purposefully towards it she appears to give the former Conservative leader a nod that says: “I’ll continue to fight for what you believed in.”
And she does.
Ms Patel is an unashamed, true-blue Tory – but she is as much a moderniser as that shopkeeper’s daughter was back in the 1970s when her spell first captivated Britain.
And on paper the similarities do not stop with the colour of the rosette: They were both brought up in local shops; they both believe in the power of the individual; they both began their political journeys as outsiders.
Back in 2004, Ms Patel had a moment of clarity. She realised that the Tories had not got over the crushing 1997 General Election defeat by Tony Blair’s new Labour and they were still out of touch.
Not until the party looked more like her – young, Asian and female – would people like her vote them back into power.
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And she was right.
When David Cameron took over he was clear that the Conservatives had to get up to speed. They had to represent a modern Britain. And Ms Patel is a perfect example of how far the Tories have come.
Today she is one of a batch of up-and-coming young Tories determined the party’s partial victory at the polls in 2010 will turn into an outright majority next time.
“It has been an interesting two years and an education – I have learnt a lot, particularly about the people I represent,” she told East meets Westminster.
“It is always a real privilege to represent them. It has been exhilarating in terms of service to people. It is a million miles away from Westminster and you do feel like you are making a difference.
“Now I am at that stage two years in when I have really been able to help people.
“Our political parties have evolved over time. I never wanted to be an MP originally, really. I was a party person, grass roots. But looking at the party in 2004 I despaired, even I could not relate to it any more. We had to look like modern Britain and we didn’t.
“Importantly for me – I never want people to think I got on because I tick a box because I am Asian or a woman. You get here on your own merit.”
Priti Patel was born in London in 1972 to Ugandan Indian immigrants who had fled East Africa. Her mother and father ran shops and some of her earliest memories are of long hours spent refilling shelves and early mornings sorting newspapers. Her parents ran shops in several places including Ipswich, Norfolk and London and from an early age she understood the importance of hard work and good financial management.
“My parents were shopkeepers,” she said. “My mum and dad had shops since the ‘70s right up until January this year. I grew up over our shop. The first was a newsagent in Hertfordshire.
“My husband always says ‘you did not really live above the shop you lived under the till’ because I am obsessed with money and counting money. But seeing my mum and dad working the most incredible amount of hours ... it was a great education. It is a hard life. I would always be filling the counters and helping at the cash and carry.
“Because of this I have always been aware of work ethic.”
And her desire to succeed is obvious. The night before our early Monday morning meeting she was on Radio 4 until late and she does not expect to leave Westminster until 10.30pm or 11pm on weekdays.
Ms Patel believes she is in the midst of a watershed moment in British politics. And during her still brief time at Westminster she has become one of the Tory’s most powerful backbench MPs. She is on the executive of the influential 1922 committee and yet bridges the gap between this old school institution and the 2010 intake of Tories who are often more Third Way in their outlook than they might want to admit. She continually refers to politics as the “battle of ideas”.
“I take the view as a backbencher that for me there is no holds barred. But it is difficult if you are in Government. Your job if you are in Government is to govern – that is the job of the Cabinet.
“That does not mean that the great individuals we have around the Cabinet table cannot contribute to the battle of ideas.”
Back in the year Ms Patel was born, it was unimaginable that Britain would have a female prime minister let alone an Asian MP.
Thankfully, we have come a long way. But the road to Westminster was never going to be easy for an Asian, female Tory – even post-Millennium. And she recognises that she was lucky.
“Secondary school defines you. I went to a girls school in West Watford. That area has a very large Muslim community – it was a melting pot, lots of immigrant kids, Italian, Greek but a big Pakistani community.
“It was incredible to see the levels of aspirations of some groups compared to other groups. The Pakistani girls I went to school with were all told they would leave at 16.
“They were not going to go to university, they were going to be married off. That has lived with me. For me, going to university was absolutely key.
“Do I think it has got better? Maybe. It is about not making the culture normal but breaking it. These girls need to know you can be successful – you can have a career.”
Britain even today can be tough for anyone of a different race or religion. Did Ms Patel face racism? Does she still?
“I lived in rural Norfolk for a time where we were the only Asian family there. But my dad did not want us to be just part of the Indian community in a large city. For him it was about getting on and to be part of the community and to be British. I am British first and foremost.
“As a child I picked up on it a bit – you come across horrible people. At school it was basically name calling – but not in Norfolk.
“I am quite immune to those sorts of things now. You can accept some people for who and what they are and there are others I will not engage with and just move on.
“Someone tried to call me a BME [black, minority, ethnic] at some stage when I was being selected and I said ‘I am British’. I was born and brought up in this country. Yes you have other languages but speaking English and living by the laws of this country are fundamental. Immigrant families that come here have to become part of the society.”
Ms Patel is married to Alex Sawyer and their son Freddie will be four next month. He will be offered all the opportunities of a middle-class child with well-educated, successful parents. But just a few hundred yards from their London home, young people are less lucky.
“The riots we saw last summer were toxic. I think in some quarters the inability to get out of their own circumstances is a reason for that kind of behaviour.
“Society has failed them. Even worse, the institutions of the state have failed them.
“The state should not be there to put a strait-jacket around a person and condemn them to a certain way of life. The whole benefits culture in this country has destroyed aspiration, it has condemned generation after generation to living off the state which is completely counter-productive.”
Ms Patel’s comment about the state will shock some people. But it is her views on the death penalty that raise eyebrows across the political spectrum. She stunned the BBC’s Question Time last year by supporting putting people who commit “the very worst crimes” to death.
“I stand by those comments but let me put it into context. I am not talking about the mass application of capital punishment. I have always said that there is zero confidence in the criminal justice system.
“For child murders I support capital punishment. I am talking about a deterrent in the justice system. Currently we spend far too much on our prisoners. What this Government is doing is looking at bringing in a payment-by-results for prisoners. I think that will improve the standards of rehabilitation.”
It seems unlikely that any future top table Conservative would support this policy. On this subject alone she remains naive.
But Ms Patel is a tour de force – she works every hour she can as a mother and an MP. Unlike some ambitious new Tories, her constituency is not second to Westminster. And she hold beliefs outside Government policy which is, in today’s post-Blair PR-driven politics, two lungs of beautiful Alpine fresh air.
But could she eclipse her idol Margaret Thatcher and become the first Asian leader of a political party?
“It would be great to experience Government. A Conservative Government.”
Ms Patel does not care who she upsets. She is convinced her beliefs are right. She is not arrogant or deluded, she is desperate for Britain – the country she loves, the country that gave her and her family a chance – to succeed. Agree with her or not – politics is all the better for her.