Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Home Secretary Prithi Patel would have been well advised to follow that old saying and keep out of the limelight. In the three weeks since we were told never to step outside except for a walk once a day and the occasional shopping several government ministers have paraded before us at press conferences and various other television and radio interviews. But there was no sign of the Home Secretary despite holding one of the great offices of state.
Then last Saturday she suddenly appeared, standing on a platform behind the lectern, so that she appeared taller than she is to take us through our daily briefing on the fight against this deadly enemy. And this is where she exposed herself as a politician who is not quite in the Premier League class, something Rishi Sunak the Chancellor undoubtedly is. He has shown an exemplary mastery of his brief in making the case for the government taking over the economy.
This is all the more impressive given that there are some, particularly on the right, who have argued that this shut down of the economy in order to defeat the coronavirus is misguided and will do more lasting damage than the coronavirus will do. It represents an enormous change in government policy and for Conservative chancellor only weeks into his office to make that case speaks volumes for Sunak’s ability to change gear swiftly and not appear rattled.
Patel incontrast did not appear to have mastered her brief. She looked nervous. She gave the impression she was having difficulty reading from her script and confused viewers as to how many tests there had been leading immediately to critical social media comment. Contrast this with Sunak whose appearances have often seen social media hail Sunak as dishi Rishi for his looks. Now Patel supporters may say she heads a department which unlike the Treasury does not dole out cash but is the one that imposes draconian measures to control and police us and is widely seen as the most difficult government department.
But this Easter weekend which is like no other in our public life she could have done something to cheer us up. She could have talked of how well society has adjusted to the lockdown. Yes, there have been those who have bent the rules. But they are a small minority. She failed to praise the great majority who have followed the instructions. It did not help that she brought to the podium Martin Hewitt, Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, and warned that more draconian measures might be taken if people flouted the instructions about social distancing. It felt as if she needed somebody she knew to hold her hand. This impression was reinforced by the fact that she allowed Hewitt to dominate the press conference. What the public wanted to know was what was being done about the PPE that the National Health Service workers so desperately need. Questioned about this Patel gave such a half-hearted apology that it made matters worse. She could have done so much more to highlight how the NHS has demonstrated the diverse face of Britain with BAME doctors being the first to die while serving the public. But as if this would show her up to be weak on immigration she made no reference to that.
I have gone on about Patel because it exposes the fact that in Boris Johnson’s government apart from Johnson himself and Sunak many do not give the appearance of being capable of topping a Premier League table of Cabinet ministers. Some of the others look like mid-table teams who would not qualify for Europe and Patel seems championship material.
This makes it all the more necessary that the media question the government as to its strategy to get us out of this pandemic. This burden falls on the media as Parliament is not sitting and there is not the scrutiny of the executive that is the essence of democracy.
Much will and has been made that since we need to invoke the war spirit that defeated the Nazis we need to get behind the government and never question it. It is worth recalling that even at the height of the last war people did not stop questioning the government.
This war is about protecting the NHS, so it is worth recalling how the founder of the NHS Aneurin Bevan behaved during the war. At the height of the war, Aneurin Bevan, then a Labour backbencher and often as odds with his party, while just as eager to beat the Nazis, relentlessly attacked the war strategy of Churchill. His most wounding jibe was, “He wins debate after debate but loses battle after battle”. Churchill was so angered by Bevan’s attacks in the Commons that he called him a “squalid nuisance.” Many of Bevan friends were also worried by his attacks. His friend Archie Lush asked him in anguish, “Why do you keep attaching Churchill? What do you think happens if he goes?” Bevan reply was, “All right. Suppose he fell under a bus. What should we have to do? Send a post card to Hitler giving in?”
That answer summed up the great British ability even at a time of mortal danger to always critically question what is happening. It is this that has always made this country special. The second world war exemplified that. The war saw this country produce a collective effort it had never produced. Yet during it there was no let up in the critical examination of what the leaders were doing not least Churchill. We need a similar collective effort to defeat an enemy whose deadlines is made worse by the fact that this is an invisible enemy. And while to fight it we need a huge collective effort unlike during the war must do so when we cannot gather collectively but have to stay behind locked doors.