Chris McLaughlin: Priti Patel is a walking calamity in an unfit ministry

It’s not often the phrase “fit for purpose” is heard in relation to Whitehall departments. That’s because it’s usually preceded with the word not.

That’s precisely how a former Home Secretary described his own ­department, with the emphasis on the not, some years ago.

Nothing’s changed. Except that the Home Office is now falling apart ­publicly with the resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam.

“Not fit for purpose” was Labour bruiser John Reid’s phrase. His tenure lasted just over a year. Priti Patel’s may not last that long.

The Home Office has responsibilities for a wider range of ­decisions over our day-to-day lives than any other Government department – policing, terrorism, immigration, election law, organised crime, drug enforcement, national security, fire, border security, modern slavery. Even open spaces.

It has long been considered a ­ministerial graveyard, the poisoned ­chalice of all Cabinet posts. Former Home Secretary Theresa May might be considered an exception, moving on to greater things, ahem, at No10.

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Feared as a law unto itself, a sort of state within a state, the Home Office has been accelerating toward a political disaster for some time. Enter Ms Patel, a one woman walking calamity waiting to happen ­wherever she lands her permasmirk.

Mix in the ­background of Boris Johnson’s plan for a radical shake-up of Whitehall – aka Dominic Cummings’s Master Plan for ­dominance of the universe – and you have ­apocalypse, if not now then just around the corner. Commentators have ­branded the institution, which employs 35,000 staff, a “£9billion trashcan” and “a nervous breakdown minuted by civil servants”.

Former staff speak of a culture of racism and of a morally broken institution with a macho disdain for ­ministerial authority.

The Windrush report concluded that the department was ­“institutionally racist”. The Institute for Government, an ­independent think tank, says the Home Office works to “a high level of political rhetoric but no clear policy”.

It says there is a “disconnect” ­between what politicians say and what the Home Office does. Critics say it needs ­breaking up, Cummings ­notwithstanding. Public safety, national security and citizenship plus borders has been suggested as a sensible split.

Plenty of work to do, then.

Priti set about the task before the election and when Boris confirmed her ­appointment, hearts in the Home Office fortress sunk. She was quickly accused of ­presiding over a bullying culture and an “atmosphere of fear”.

Patel had a first go then succeeded, at knocking an “obstructive” Sir Philip off his perch as the department’s head.

Out of the blue came claims that Patel was being denied access to secret service reports because MI5 “did not trust her”. The service took the unusual step of issuing a public denial.

How apt that in Boris’s brave new world the closest thing the country has to the ministry of truth is tearing itself apart.

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