Is Priti Patel vicious or stupid? It’s a fine line for Ukrainian refugees

The home secretary’s mix of incompetence and cruelty has come to the fore in this war

You can only imagine the kompromat that Priti Patel must have on the prime minister. As international development secretary in Theresa May’s government, she had been sacked for going rogue with her own foreign policy. Her flight back to the UK from Kenya had been tracked every bit as closely as those made by Russian oligarchs today. That would have been the end of their career for most politicians. But not Priti Vacant. When Boris Johnson became prime minister, he promoted her to home secretary.

Then came the inquiry that found Patel guilty of breaking the ministerial code for bullying staff. That again should have been enough for instant dismissal. Instead The Suspect ordered colleagues to protect “The Prittster” at all costs. And so she survived; to bumble on with her characteristic mix of incompetence and viciousness. No more so than during the current war in Ukraine.

While most other government departments have upped their game over the past weeks, the Home Office has been a national embarrassment. While other European countries have opened their borders to welcome refugees, the UK went out of its way to make it almost impossible for any Ukrainians to reach this country: from not disclosing where most of the visa application centres were situated to making sure those that were advertised were closed. Cue hundreds of refugees being sent on pointless journeys from Calais to Lille to Paris. And back.

None of this has gone down well with MPs on either side of the house. On Monday, Vacant had managed to give the Commons the wrong information about which visa application centres were open and where they were – one hesitates to say she lied, as she’s genuinely stupid enough not to be across the finer details of what her department is up to.

The following day, she had gone awol during an urgent question about the Home Office’s mishandling of the refugee crisis and let a junior immigration minister take the hit instead. Not that Kevin Foster seemed to mind. He went on Twitter to say that refugees could always take advantage of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Because picking fruit would help take their mind off the war.

On Thursday, Patel did bother to come to the Commons in person to answer yet another urgent question on refugees. Partly because she needed to reassure Tory MPs that she had at least some idea what was going on; partly because this time she actually had something new to say.

Though she did look initially a bit bewildered. She was under the impression – as most of us had been – that her sole role was to win favour with the Tory right by being beastly to foreigners; something at which she excels. Vacant couldn’t quite get her head around the fact that all of a sudden every Tory backbencher – with the exception of Edward Leigh and Daniel Kawczynski – had gone soft on refugees.

But Patel gathered herself and ploughed on with the script. To make things easier, refugees with Ukrainian passports and family in the UK would now be allowed to apply for their visas online. Quite how this would work for refugees whose passports were lost or missing in the chaos of war, she didn’t say. Nor how people without data roaming on their phones would manage to upload their visa applications. Even assuming they could still manage to charge their phones.

In any case, none of this could start until next Tuesday as the Home Office needed to ensure all necessary security measures were in place. Though, given that the Russians had been planning the invasion for months, you’d have thought they had all the spies they wanted in place in the UK without trying to pass a few off as Ukrainian refugees.

This was a start, said Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary. But why had it taken yet another urgent question to shame Patel into action at the dispatch box? And why was there still no clear humanitarian pathway for refugees without immediate family in the UK? For reasons best known to herself, Cooper went along with the security rhetoric. Almost as if Labour was terrified of being seen to be weak on immigration. Even though every other country in Europe was taking unlimited numbers of refugees without visas. And even though the majority of people in the UK are in favour of this country doing the same. Labour’s response is to be a bit nicer than the Tories, but not too much.

Vacant, however, was a model of indignation. Contrary to appearances, she hadn’t been dragged to the Commons. She had been gagging to be asked. It’s just that she was a little shy and didn’t want to appear too pushy. Patel: the model of modesty. And the Tories had a “world-beating” record on refugees. This one again. No matter how often she and Boris repeat it, it doesn’t make it true. The UK may score well in the narrow band of “resettled refugees”, but on refugees in general, we’re hopeless. In proportion to population size, we barely make the top 20 of the most welcoming European countries.

Then came the moment that – temporarily at least – silenced the entire chamber. The visas and the bureaucracy were actually doing the refugees a favour, Patel continued. Because if we had an open border policy and let in as many as wanted to come, then we’d have a Windrush situation where people couldn’t prove they had leave to remain.

This was Vacant at either her most vicious or her most stupid. Because it wasn’t the lack of paperwork that was the problem for the Windrush generation; it was the hostile environment that sought to deport people who were legally entitled to be here – the lack of full paperwork was just a means to that end. A hostile environment policy dreamed up by Theresa May in 2012 and slavishly pursued by Patel a decade later.

Most MPs were in a forgiving mood, though. Ready to congratulate Patel on her baby steps towards humanity, rather than to castigate her for the all too obvious shortcomings in her plans. There again, there was every chance that the home secretary would be back in the Commons to explain another policy disaster in the coming weeks. Time was on their side. If not on the side of those fleeing the war.