A Bully or a Sexist Double Standard? Britain's Priti Patel Feels the Heat
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When does a 'tough boss' become a bully?
By Carly Stern
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Priti Patel knows difficult PR. In the early 2000s, she lobbied for British American Tobacco (BAT) as part of her role at the consulting firm Weber Shandwick. Patel’s team was in charge of helping BAT manage its public image during a dispute about a factory in Myanmar being used to fund its military dictatorship, according to investigative reports.
She’s also no stranger to other vices: After that job, Patel worked for an alcoholic beverages company. But today, the British home secretary and member of parliament is finding herself in a pickle that even the most seasoned expert would have trouble massaging into polished talking points.
Patel, 47, is facing mounting pressure to resign amid numerous allegations of bullying. Sir Philip Rutnam, Patel’s top civil servant, stepped down, citing a volatile work environment and a climate of fear. “I have been the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign,” Rutman wrote in his resignation statement.
Patel has denied allegations of misbehavior. But this wouldn’t be the first time she was accused of inappropriately lashing out: In 2015, an aide who had worked for her brought forth bullying and harassment claims that were dismissed. The documentation of that incident also alleges that the aide had taken an overdose of prescription medication and tried to commit suicide. That case didn’t come before a tribunal and the Department for Work and Pensions didn’t acknowledge liability, according to the BBC, which broke the story in the days after Rutman’s resignation.
It all raises sticky questions about the line between being a “tough” female boss and legitimately abusive behavior.
It’s unheard of for a senior civil servant to publicly accuse their minister of lying, orchestrating or tolerating a bullying campaign against an official, says Paul Osbourne, a British political commentator. “These disputes happen — civil servants are permanent, ministers are temporary and politicians have often felt the civil service is there to frustrate them, rather than deliver their policies,” he says. But conflict is often resolved by shifting the civil servant laterally into another department, payoffs or non-disclosure agreements.
This time, Rutnam is taking legal action against Patel, while the Cabinet Office has launched an inquiry. It will dig into Patel’s past, which begins in London. Born into a Ugandan-Indian family, Patel’s parents emigrated from Kampala, Uganda, to Hertfordshire in the 1960s. They were able to come — during a time when Ugandan Asians were fleeing Uganda — as a result of their colonial citizen status. Patel’s parents first earned a living in the U.K. by launching a chain of newsstands. A blend of press and politics would eventually shape Patel’s career decades later — as would a do-it-yourself mentality that can be traced to her immigrant roots.
Patel found her North Star in conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom she admired for her pragmatism. “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,” Patel told Total Politics in 2012. Patel joined the Conservative Party during her teenage years.
After graduating, she held various roles handling media relations within the Conservative Party before leaving for Weber Shandwick. She was first elected as an MP in 2010, rising eventually to secretary of state for international development — before a scandal surrounding undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials cut that stint short in 2017. She’s held the home secretary role since July 2019.
Patel’s never shied away from unpopular opinions, and she’s had her fair share of political battles. She was a staunch supporter of Brexit, has voted to overturn smoking bans and has advocated for a points-based immigration system — under which her parents might not have qualified.
But the current allegations are serious enough to jeopardize her career, and at the very least her job. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s inquiry will probe whether Patel violated the ministerial code — and some British politicians have urged for the investigation to cover not just this incident, but the full trajectory of Patel’s time in government. The claims are demanding attention in part because they come at the tail end of a slew of broader bullying allegations concerning MPs, notes Osbourne.
But the affair raises sticky questions about the line between being a “tough” female boss and legitimately abusive behavior — including both how that kind of behavior is perceived, and how those accused of perpetuating it are held accountable. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar faced numerous critiques during her presidential campaign of being a “bad boss” — accounts that were primarily driven by former staffers speaking anonymously with the media. These kinds of concerns don’t seem to arise as much for male bosses with known tempers.
And while Patel has simply denied the allegations, her backers see sexism in the complaints. “There are reports of shouting and screaming — you only have to substitute this for the word hysterical and you know exactly what they mean,” Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservatives, told The Sun.
Johnson has publicly stood behind Patel, too, but if further inquiries or press reports unearth more troublesome stories, she could have to resign. That would add to Johnson’s high turnover at 10 Downing Street and require the kind of spin only a PR master could summon.