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When Priti Patel arrived at the Home Office staff knew what to expect.
The Conservative MP already had a reputation for wearing sharply-cut suits and wielding even more sharply-cut elbows.
Some ministers inspire loyalty, others are a cause for despair.
In Whitehall, Ms Patel was known for inciting another kind of reaction – fear.
In her apology yesterday, she said: “I am direct and have at times got frustrated.”
Civil servants will claim this is the understatement of the year.
As the ambitious Brexiteer worked her way up the ministerial ladder she started to amass what many would regard as a disproportionate number of complaints about her behaviour.
Patel has been accused of creating an “atmosphere of fear”
(Image: UK PARLIAMENT/AFP via Getty Imag)
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She has been accused of belittling officials and creating an “atmosphere of fear” with her unreasonable demands.
These may not have come to light had not Sir Philip Rutnam, the most senior civil servant at the Home Office, made his explosive resignation statement in February.
Sir Philip said: “I have received allegations that her conduct has included shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands – behaviour that created fear and that needed some bravery to call out.”
Sir Philip is now pursuing a case for constructive dismissal.
Shortly afterwards, it emerged that a civil servant at the Department for Work and Pensions had received a £25,000 payout after being sacked in 2015.
Legal correspondence showed the junior employee brought a formal complaint of bullying and harassment against Ms Patel, then the Employment Minister, and the department.
According to the documents, Ms Patel had told her to “get lost” and “get out of her face” and had acted “without warning” and with an “unprovoked level of aggression”.
The woman took an overdose of prescription drugs following the alleged incident.
A third claim then emerged, this time at the Department for International Development, where Ms Patel was alleged to have “repeatedly harassed and belittled” her private secretary so badly that he signed off suffering from stress.
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(Image: AFP/Getty Images)
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Each of the allegations was strongly denied by Ms Patel.
Born in 1972, Ms Patel is the daughter of Gujarati parents who fled Uganda in the 1960s.
She was born in London and educated in Watford, at a girls’ school, where her contemporaries reportedly included Spice Girl Geri Halliwell.
At the age of 18, inspired by Margaret Thatcher, Ms Patel joined her local Conservative Party.
Ms Patel once said of Mrs Thatcher: “She had a unique ability to understand what made people tick, households tick and businesses tick.
"Managing the economy, balancing the books and making decisions – not purchasing things the country couldn’t afford.”
After studying economics at Keele University, Ms Patel worked at Conservative Central Office before briefly jumping ship to join the anti-EU Referendum Party.
She was returned to the Tory fold by William Hague, who made her one of his press secretaries.
After being elected as the MP for Witham, Essex, in May 2010, she spent most of the five-year Tory/Lib Dem coalition on the backbenches, making speeches about cutting taxes, and scrapping the foreign aid budget.
But when it began, Priti Patel’s ascent through the ranks of government was rapid.
In July 2014, she became a junior minister at the Treasury.
After the Conservatives’ shock 2015 election victory – the party’s first outright majority for 23 years – David Cameron made her Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, and 16 months later new PM Theresa May appointed her to the Cabinet.
But she put Ms Patel in charge at International Development, overseeing the foreign aid budget.
Yesterday Priti Patel said “I am direct and have at times got frustrated"
(Image: Getty Images)
Ms Patel, say witnesses, was far from delighted.
One official watched her stomp through the entrance to the building in Whitehall and stride across “stony-faced” without acknowledging staff.
They looked on in horror as she headed straight for the lift to the Secretary of State’s office.
Staff later received an email setting out where Ms Patel believed money was being wasted and stressing things would change under her leadership.
A source who worked with Ms Patel said: “If she took against an official she would let it be known and she would ask for people to be removed from jobs.
"She’s very robust, very demanding and wants impossible stuff done instantly.
“She wouldn’t take no for an answer. I’ve seen people trembling in meetings with her.
“But she had her favourites and would cosy up to them.”
The source said Ms Patel found the Civil Service “hugely frustrating”.
They added: “She thinks of herself as a doer.
“She inherently dislikes civil servants, she thinks they are risk averse.
"She thinks they are trying to stop what she wants to achieve.”
Ms Patel’s posting at DfID did not last long.
She was fired 16 months in after holding unauthorised meetings with the Israeli government while on holiday.
In November 2017, as clamour was growing for her to lose her job, she flew to Africa for an official trip, only to be ordered back to London to be fired by Theresa May.
But Ms Patel was reluctant to give up the trappings of power and asked to fly home in luxury.
An insider said: “On that trip when she was basically facing the sack, she flew out to Africa and was summoned back by the PM.
"She demanded her private office put her on a business class flight – even though she was flying back to get sacked.”
The source said officials refused and she eventually flew in economy.
She landed at Heathrow and was driven to No10 to be handed her P45.
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When they heard she had been fired, staff at the DfID were reported to have been so relieved that some broke into an impromptu rendition of Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead from the Wizard of Oz.
Yet Ms Patel’s ministerial career was resurrected when Boris Johnson entered No10 in July 2019, when he promptly handed her one of the four Great Offices of State.
Many saw her promotion as reward for her devotion to the Brexit cause.
An official said the presence in government of Ms Patel’s Vote Leave pal Dominic Cummings, who quit as the PM’s chief adviser last week, amplified her “ruthless” streak.
At one time Ms Patel attracted attention as a possible future leader. Now she is best known for her ability to attract controversy.