Rachel Sylvester has a piece in The Times today arguing for the replacement of Priti Patel by Michael Gove as Home Secretary. Yes of course Patel needs to be replaced and yes there is a case to be made that she is the worst of a truly awful Cabinet. The most illiberal Home Secretary in living memory is also incompetent and very nasty. But if competence was the main criterion of judgment none of her gruesome colleagues should stay in office either.
The crunch is that Conservative politics has become an extreme form of Margaret Thatcher’s “Is he one of us?”. The only essential characteristic is to be loyal to the Great Leader and, of course, to the destructive nationalism of Johnson’s politics. The appointment to the Cabinet of the revolting Lord Frost was perhaps the ultimate expression of this.
I was once invited to an event at which Michael Gove was the main speaker. I asked an acquaintance who knew him well what he was like and was told he was good-mannered and polite. His address was pretty shabby with gaping holes in its logic. I asked Gove about these deficiencies and he turned on me with venom. I had, I think, been courteous. Gove certainly was not.
The point of replacing Patel with Gove is not that it would be marginally preferable (it probably would) but that the core of her policies would not change. Xenophobia is at the heart of this and it stands in the way of Britain’s European trade dilemma. The case for being a member of the Single Market and the Customs Union is overwhelming but the EU would require that we sign up again to the Four Freedoms to do this. Patel wouldn’t do this and I doubt that Gove would either.
If substance and style and intellect really mattered who in Boris’s band of brothers and sisters would survive? Sunak perhaps but Williamson, Hancock, Truss – no way. The blessed Margaret, to her credit, did tolerate dissidents in her cabinet. Johnson does not. Not one of his motley and sub-standard crew stands up to him or even mildly hints at his manifest inadequacies.
So if Patel is kicked out it will be fine to have a quiet cheer. And Gove would be a superficial improvement. But the event would only be a minor wobble to Johnson’s hegemony. A Pyrrhic victory.