Perma-smirking Priti Patel brings the hostile environment in-house | Marina Hyde | Opinion

According to officials from one of her former departments, Priti Patel was given to coming out of her office and inquiring: “Why is everyone so fucking useless?” Very bold. This is a bit like Donald Trump coming out of his office and asking why everyone has spectacularly stupid hair. The perma-smirking Patel has now moved on to the Home Office, where this week she was accused of bullying staff, trying to oust her most senior official, and creating an “atmosphere of fear” within the department. As opposed to outside of it, which is the norm. If nothing else, it’s a failure of management. To get the best out of people who you want to do their worst, you need to create the right working environment. It’s why the offices of S.P.E.C.T.R.E have a great creche, a smoothie bar, and two “I don’t feel like killing” days per annum for every employee.

As for the Home Office, a complex department already regarded as malevolent, it is now in the hands of someone who recently gave an interview in which she repeatedly confused “counter-terrorism” with “terrorism”. This whole “Priti Patel is home secretary” scenario has the flavour of one of those US news stories where some open-carry idiot’s toddler has leant forward in their car seat and pulled a gun out of the backseat pocket. If you’re one of those people who get off on saying “I told you so”, then fine. But really, there are no good outcomes here. One of the more eye-catching Home Office briefings against her this week declared that Patel was “not committed to the rule of law”. Given she’s home secretary, that feels akin to a doctor not being committed to the idea of medicine. Should it not be vaguely disqualifying?

Arguably, then, it’s been the trickiest week for Priti since the one when she went on a private family holiday to Israel with her husband and then-nine-year-old son, and met with … hang on, we’re going to need a colon here because there’s rather a lot of this: prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a senior foreign ministry diplomat, the public security minister, the leader of the Yesh Atid party, at least nine NGO leaders, staff at a hospital, two charity bosses … There are several more, but all you need to know is that this was your classic holiday-with-kids. “Can we go to a waterpark?” “No. Mummy needs some me-time in the Golan Heights.”

I’m only kidding – presumably the husband did the childcare while Priti relaxed on a lounger at the Knesset. Or maybe everyone was included, with the grownups playing it all as an elaborate fib, like when you try to persuade your children that something grim is a fun game. “You said we were going to have an ice-cream.” “I know but I’ve got something even better – it’s Benjamin Netanyahu!” (I mean … we’ve all met some ghastly people on holiday, haven’t we, but that’s got to be pushing it.)

Despite being resigned from office after that little jolly, Priti Patel is now home secretary, a yin whose yang is the statement, “Dominic Raab is now foreign secretary”. And in keeping with the ironicidal themes of the Boris Johnson administration, it this week fell to madam to front the government’s new policy barring unskilled workers from coming to the UK.

Patel insisted those jobs previously filled by immigrant workers would be stepped up to by Britons currently classed as “economically inactive” – a rationale that means so much more coming from someone always classed as intellectually inactive. One theory is that last Thursday’s cabinet reshuffle brought bad news from Priti’s magic mirror, which no longer gave the desired answer when she inquired of it: “Who is the dimmest of them all?” So this week has been all about restoring herself to her rightful throne.

Either way, Dominic Cummings will doubtless enjoy the torrent of briefing against Patel, because it plays into his narrative that the sole brake on this government’s genius is the civil service. Cummings has made so much of his intention to revolutionise “the blob” that the only reading that flatters him assumes that he wishes to do quite the opposite. Otherwise, why play it like he has? If you talk to people who have genuinely revolutionised any established institution, the absolute first thing they will tell you is that you never, ever do it by announcing that plan when you arrive. If you do, you set up resistance and defensiveness from the start.

So has our beanie-hatted strategist cocked this battle up before it was even fought? You’ve heard of Sun Tzu – meet his brother, Shi-Tzu. Of course, I’m being unfair, because you can’t fault Cummings on the old election-winning. But it increasingly feels like his plan to remake the state could end up commuted down to shifting the location of some lobby journalist briefings and firing a few spads. As physicist Murray Gell-Mann once remarked: BIG WOWS. The question is not if but when the Cummings flounce-out happens. A big fan of interdisciplinary enlightenment, I know he’d be stimulated to learn it was the exactly same with Geri and the Spice Girls. It doesn’t take a superforecaster to see that Dominic will sooner or later be a superblogger again.

And so to the impossibly brief tenure of superforecaster Andrew Sabisky. Cummings’s first hire after his appeal for “weirdos and misfits” to work in No 10 ended up with the apparently unvetted Sabisky flaming out on Monday. When Cummings left his house for work the next day, he was accosted by a journalist shouting laconically: “Have you got any more weirdos?” This is definitely my favourite doorstep inquiry since Michael Crick greeted Peter Mandelson one morning with the salutation: “Will you be telling any lies today, Mr Mandelson?”

But let’s get real here for a minute and ask: how weird was Cummings’s weirdo, really? When Classique Dom put out his famous APB, I was envisaging someone like the brilliant non-binary quantitative analyst in Billions, an unconventional genius with a fascinating and mysterious backstory. Instead, the very first “weirdo” Cummings went for was some basic Oxbridge thinktank twat, at least 436 of which can be found wanking on the wrong side of the velvet rope at the Spectator party at Tory conference. Yes, he’s a dreary little eugenicist bro. But aren’t they all, dear.

Still, on the show goes. Indeed, speaking of the economically inactive, whatever happened to the prime minister? One hears so little about Boris Johnson these days, and sees him even less. His career refusal to even pretend to give a shit has been noticed by some in the worst flood-hit communities, who are more likely to be visited by Elvis than Boris.

According to briefings, the PM spent much of the week holed up in Chevening, the Kent country house normally at the disposal of the foreign secretary. It seems Chequers is being renovated, so Johnson must have commandeered the next grace-and-favour property down. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased for the Chevening locals. I don’t think any of us would wish to meet Raab on a remote country lane. And perhaps this is how the PM means to conduct his premiership – with the odd mad appearance on the battlements, but in general concealed from public view like some Victorian liability. It’s a living, I suppose. But is it a life?

Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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