Priti Patel is out of her depth – and that is Boris Johnson’s fault

Simon Jenkins
Photograph: Benjamin Wareing/Alamy

When a boss and her number two issue statements professing love for each other, something is wrong. Witness the home secretary, Priti Patel, and her chief civil servant, Philip Rutnam, countering rumours from within their department. These allegations about Patel, leaked to the press, include “bullying”, “belittling officials”, creating an atmosphere of fear, and being out of her depth. This is not a happy ship.

The Home Office has seemed dysfunctional for more than a decade, as it has attempted to deliver Toryism’s “nasty” edge, on law and order and, above all, immigration. Its explicitly “hostile environment” towards immigrants and asylum seekers has come to embody Britain’s “un-welcome” to the world. It desperately needs leadership that is politically subtle and sensitive.

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Patel’s greatest fans would not laud her subtlety and sensitivity. A lack of experience and chequered ministerial career restored her to high office only because Boris Johnson wanted a rightwing loyalist who would carry his anti-Europeanism to extremes. Patel has set about this with a bludgeon.

The readiness of Home Office officials to “gold plate” Tory xenophobia has long puzzled those who regard the British civil service as basically liberal at heart. It has shackled local police with target culture, persistently opposed reform of drugs policy and persecuted any immigrant who crosses their path. That officials might finally be seeking to sensitise a rightwing minister is welcome.

However, bad-mouthing a minister is rarely productive. It is hard to believe Patel and Rutnam can long be in joint harness. Responsibility for this mess lies entirely with Johnson, for appointing an out-of-depth minister in the first place. He is clearly still in his “Trumpian” phase, thrashing about, sacking people, tearing things up and hoping they will settle. We all do.

Johnson clearly wants to run what under Tony Blair was called a “Napoleonic” government, based on strong central command and a cabinet of poodles. The appointment of often useless ministers for short terms of office might work if balanced by a stable and experienced officialdom. Rumours of the imminent sacking of officials suggest no such balance. Disruptive aides, such as Margaret Thatcher’s Alan Walters and Blair’s Alastair Campbell, have to be offset by wiser and older heads. As Thatcher said, “Every prime minister needs a Willie,” referring to her experienced deputy, William Whitelaw.

Johnson has no Willie – where it matters. He cuts at present a solitary figure. All his advice appears to come from Dominic Cummings. Such radical aides are important at the heart of government, but not let off the lead. The cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, clearly cannot control the government machine, as senior officials are demoted from advisers and chief executives into mere administrators who only obey orders.

If constructive criticism is not sustained within government, it will default to the street, as is happening in democracies around the world. Johnson’s distortion of the chemistry of British government is dangerous for all concerned, not least himself.

• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist