Priti Patel's Growing Profile In The UK - Why This Is Her Moment

Published: June 08, 2016 12:08 IST
With two weeks to go before Britain votes in what's seen as the most important electoral contest for decades, the campaign so far has been shrill and over-the-top. It has set top Conservatives against each other. Prime Minister David Cameron and his allies, who are arguing for Britain to remain in the European Union, have warned that exit would increase the risks of war and worldwide recession. Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, responded by comparing the EU's supposed desire for a federal Europe to Hitler's vision for the continent.

This fear-mongering on both sides has not impressed the voters. Nor has it done much for the standing of a whole clutch of politicians at the helm of the contending campaigns. One of the few to come out well from the referendum contest is Priti Patel, the 44-year-old Employment Minister who also happens to be the most prominent Hindu in the House of Commons.

As the daughter of migrants, it is at first glance surprising that she is a staunch supporter of the "Brexit" campaign, which is making a lot of noise about the need to cut sharply the numbers entering the UK. The "Leave" campaign regards immigration as its strongest campaign card - while those favouring "Remain" are emphasising the economic risks of leaving the world's biggest trading bloc.

Patel is an eloquent exponent of the "Leave" case, and as a (relatively) young political figure, a woman and an Asian, she has been given prominence in a campaign which is top-heavy with middle-aged white men. For a second-tier politician - she doesn't have full cabinet rank - she has seized her moment; she is even being spoken of as a potential Conservative leader, and some bookmakers are offering odds as short as 12-1 on her taking that role whenever it becomes vacant. 

Priti Patel was born in London. Her parents, Sushil and Anjana, came from Uganda in the late 1960s. Once settled in Britain, they set up a chain of corner-shop newsagents - the defining occupation of East African Gujaratis in the UK. "They came from East Africa when there was huge upheaval", Priti Patel said recently of her family. "They came with nothing - so what did they do? They went out to work all day, every day."

Priti Patel is Britain's senior-most Indian-origin Cabinet minister

After degrees from Keele and Essex universities, Patel landed a job at Conservative headquarters. She was always on the right-wing of the party. And in the 1997 general election, she briefly defected to the anti-Europe Referendum Party, which campaigned for a vote to decide on whether Britain should stay in the EU. Now, just such a referendum is imminent.

She made a career in public relations and married a business consultant, Alex Sawyer; their son Freddie is now seven. She has an unlikely passion for a politician - a love of Metallica-style heavy metal music. In 2010, she was elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament. Marked out as a rising star, last year she became the junior minister for employment, a hugely politically sensitive post. She was one of the MPs who welcomed fellow Gujarati Narendra Modi to London last November, and accompanied him to his rally at Wembley Stadium.

Patel is clearly able and self-confident - with a sense of style too. The "Leave" campaign turned to her last week to help front their advocacy of an Australian-style points system for would-be immigrants, based on skills and experience, rather than the current open access for nationals of EU member states.

"We have a long and proud record of welcoming migrants - as my parents can attest," Patel wrote in Britain's biggest-selling newspaper The Sun. "But the impact of uncontrolled immigration from the EU...drives wages down, makes it harder for people to access good public services, and puts pressure on housing."

Figures released during the campaign show that annual net migration to Britain is running at over 330,000 - even though David Cameron had pledged to cap this figure at 100,000. One leader of the Brexit campaign, Michael Gove, has argued that it is "racist" to give preference to migrants from within the EU over those from countries such as India with which the UK has historic links. 

The vote on June 23rd is likely to be close, though most observers believe that Britain will decide to stay in the EU. As the governing Conservatives seek to patch up their differences, whatever the referendum outcome, Priti Patel's calm and effective advocacy and her growing public profile could well put her in line for promotion.  

(Andrew Whitehead, a former BBC Delhi correspondent, is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham and at Queen Mary, University of London.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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