On Wednesday a third allegation of bullying was made against UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, in what is being dubbed on Twitter the ‘civil service #MeToo’ movement.
The reaction today, at least on social media, has slowly become one of mounting suspicion against the individuals making the claims against Ms Patel. Prime Minister Boris Johnson firmly reiterated his support for the ‘fantastic Home Secretary’ during PMQs today, and his supporters online have lauded her as being the only Home Secretary in decades with the gusto (or gall) necessary to bring about radical change to immigration policy.
Priti Patel adamantly denies the fresh claims as “completely false”, and allies blame a vendetta against her by a civil service faction. One friend: “A small number of civil servants are now actively trying to undermine a senior member of the elected government”.
— Tom Newton Dunn (@tnewtondunn) March 3, 2020
On the other side of the court, the allegations are seen as a rising tide of condemning evidence against the Home Secretary, with many of the more centre-ground politicians and media figures calling for her to be removed from government.
What’s the argument we’re really having?
I think the real danger is that we can no longer prove the veracity of claims of wrongdoing within positions of political office. With the argument being made that the allegations against Ms Patel are a concerted civil service stitch-up, and with a clear motive being present for such a malicious undertaking, I have sympathy for those who lose heart at the idea that accountability is boiling down to little more than a he-said she-said.
The conflicts at play are complex and myriad, and they are conflating any process of arbitration for the issue at hand – but one tension stands out in particular.
Most significantly, we have the very much alive-and-kicking tussle between the two most toxic forces in modern British politics: the enlightened, sanctimonious and London-centric equipe de frappe, and the pseudo-nostalgic, mob-like-Murdoch-disciples. The former is entirely counterproductive in the unsympathetic and condescending way it addresses the grievances of the latter, which accuse them of being the out-of-touch elite. The latter is equally guilty, though. With calls for dramatic overhaul of institutions which preserve democratic due process, and a seemingly flexible conception of truth and the lessons of history, there are some worrying parallels with the rhetoric of the Munich beer halls.
How this seems to be playing out in politics – and wider society – is thoroughly disenchanting. Rather than resolving the elephant in the room, the bitterness between the two extremes appears to do little but turn off everybody between the two poles of opinion, who feel the only way to healthily engage with political discourse is to roll their eyes and avoid it altogether. I’d wager, perhaps cynically, that this is a dream outcome for Cummings et al. General ignorance is a far better breeding ground for the politics of plate-spinning, eponymous infrastructure projects and grand narratives, than an engaged body of citizens who hold leaders to account, for basing a country’s future on delusions of bygone glory.
What’s the verdict on Priti Patel?
In the context of today’s events, this tension has left us with little hope of recourse. We have no conception – let alone a desire – to create a common idea of truth, and all this leaves us with is an undercurrent of ill-will and dissatisfaction (which naturally suits the side favouring hate, and dissatisfaction with the status quo).
Playing for the Priti Patel camp for a moment: it seems intuitive to think the civil service would attempt to weaken or undermine a government threatening to dismantle and rebuild their entire institution. Ms Patel would also be the natural target for such an endeavour. She’s high profile, prone to making mistakes and disliked by many. With well-documented controversies such as her illicit diplomatic trip to Israel and her pay-for-favour approach to handing out MoD contracts, alongside her inability to discern between ‘terrorism’ and ‘counter-terrorism’ (among a series of golden soundbites) – she is the perfect comic-book villain.
However, after a long digression, I tend to think the revelation of £25k hush money, to one of the alleged victims, provides some fire for the smoke.
I might agree that our infrastructure and political institutions are in need of modernisation, but this should be done neither through the rhetorical chess of Mr Cummings, nor the empty spin methods favoured by his predecessors.
Reform in all areas of politics needs to come from a place of rigour and a pragmatic search for solutions. The desire for change is palpable, but I fear (as recent events have shown us) that we lack a common conception of what is good and true. Without it, we risk entering a dangerous back-and-forth between divergent forces, attempting to bring about their differing conceptions of an ideal society.