Counterfactual history has always fascinated me, and this week Duncan Brack and I have published our fifth book of politically themed counterfactual essays titled 'PRIME MINISTER PRITI & OTHER THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPENED'. It contains 23 essays and I have written the title chapter, which you can read below. I hope you enjoy it, and if you do please do buy the whole book. Signed copies can be ordered from Politicos HERE.
Note: This was written before Matt Hancock's fall from grace.
It was snowing outside. The Chequers lawn was hidden by a covering of snow so deep that the crocuses couldn’t penetrate it. The Prime Minister sat back in his high-backed chair in a contemplative mood. It’s funny how things turn out, he thought to himself. He had come to office full of boosterish enthusiasm, optimism and energy. Three and a half years later, he was knackered. His hair was falling out, and that damned dog was driving him to distraction. The job may have taken an enormous physical toll on him, but, god damn it, he’d seen it through and come out the other side. Inquiry after inquiry. Investigation after investigation. He’d seen them all off.
He knew what some people thought of him. He was old enough to know his own frailties and failings and had eventually come to realise that his craving to be liked by everyone couldn’t possibly be achieved. For a moment, he thought back to the leadership hustings in Nottingham in June 2019. It seemed a lifetime ago, yet it still rankled. He grimaced as he remembered the words of the eighteen-year-old British Asian lad: ‘Mr Johnson, you’re a racist, aren’t you?’[i]
At first, he thought he must have misheard and looked plaintively at the moderator for reassurance. Back came there none. How could anyone possibly think that about him? Well, he’d proved them wrong, hadn’t he? More ethnic minority Cabinet members than at any time in history. Two of the top three offices of state held by British Asians at the same time at one point. He’d led by example. He hoped the lad in Nottingham had taken note.
Mind you, it hadn’t all been plain sailing. He’d lost his Chancellor, Sajid Javid, after only seven months, and his successor had been a constant thorn in his side. It wasn’t exactly on the TB–GB scale of conflict between No. 10 and No. 11 two decades earlier, but Rishi Sunak’s response to the Covid crisis had made him a contender. But as with all political reputations, they could fall as quickly as they rose. And the past six months had rather taken the polish off the Chancellorial political suit of armour.
And then there was the party chairman. Priti. The Pritster. He remembered her first party conference speech as Home Secretary back in October 2019. God, that seemed an age ago, but his recollection of the speech was as clear as the moment he’d witnessed it in his Manchester hotel suite. ‘Jesus, Dom, is she actually having an orgasm on stage?’ the PM queried to Dominic Cummings, who had been quietly working on the PM’s own speech.
He looked up and remarked: ‘I don’t know, but whatever it is, I’ll have what she’s having.’
Boris Johnson had often wondered what he was thinking when he appointed Priti Patel as Home Secretary. She was one of a number of core ‘Vote Leavers’ whom he’d felt obliged to reward when he first became Prime Minister, but bringing back a colleague who had been sacked in such weird circumstances by Theresa May in 2017, and then giving her one of the top jobs in government, left most commentators scratching their heads in bewilderment. But Boris had been adamant when many of his advisers urged him to give her a more junior job instead. ‘No, not having it. She stood by me when the going got tough, and she’s sound.’ It was a sign of things to come.
His Cabinet marked a total break. To ‘get Brexit done’ he needed a team of Brexiteers and true believers. He’d seen how Remainers had wreaked havoc in Theresa May’s Cabinet and tried to wreck Brexit at every turn, and he wasn’t going to enable history to be repeated. He knew he’d have to keep a sprinkling of Remainers, but he ousted anyone who hadn’t signed up to his leadership campaign, with the exception of the former party chairman, Brandon Lewis, who was kept on as Security Minister, with a seat attending Cabinet. Or, as one wag put it: ‘To pick up the pieces after Priti.’
And there proved to be plenty of pieces to pick up. But however dire things looked, and however much trouble the Home Secretary got herself into, the Prime Minister was determined to stand by her, even when it meant expending his own political capital. ‘I’m not going to let the bastards get her,’ he told one of his advisers, who’d reckoned she ought to be sacked over the Cabinet Office’s report on her alleged bullying of civil servants. However, having given her two years in the job, it was maybe time for a change, and in the post-Covid, post-local-elections reshuffle of the summer of 2021, Priti’s time was up. Making public the fact that she had advised the PM to shut the borders right at the start of the pandemic, but had been overruled, had been almost the last straw. So, a plan was hatched.
She would be the new party chairman. The PM knew how popular she was among party members. Her speeches not only found her own G-spot but that of the collective party membership. They may not have been the blood-curdling flog-and-birch-’em brigade of party conferences past, but party members appreciated a bit of red meat to chew on, and Priti Patel knew they liked it rare. Boris well remembered a letter he had been sent from twenty-year-old construction worker Harry, from Manchester. He knew that Priti could reach parts of the Conservative base that he could not. Whenever an adviser would start to criticise the Home Secretary, Boris would reach into his man bag and pull out Harry’s letter and quote from it:
When I was on my college course, I soon realised I was the only working-class Tory among a sea of Body Shop-bathed champagne socialists. During this time, I would use YouTube to watch debates, and I accidentally fell down the rabbit hole of Conservative supporters posting clips of Members of Parliament or Andrew Neil ‘DESTROYING’ Owen Jones. It was a thirty-second clip of Priti Patel on Question Time making the case for capital punishment. I laughed and thought it was fantastic. Here was a Conservative Asian woman on the BBC saying the things that ‘people like me’ say. By the phrase people like me, what I really mean is working-class people.
On the morning of 23 May 2017, our community woke up to the news that Salman Abedi bombed our local arena. In the following weeks in our local boozer, I remember the talk. ‘He and his brother should have been strung up!’ To connect the dots between this incident and Priti Patel: it related to us; she was saying what we thought. Something other Conservative grandees would never say!
I was still in school when the European Union referendum happened. I wasn’t old enough to vote, and at that time I couldn’t care less what the decision was. I will never forget a moment that captivated me more than the BBC’s The Great Debate. During the programme, there was a section where Priti was talking in a makeshift dugout for political experts. ‘They take our money, they spend our money, they don’t account to themselves fiscally,’ said Patel. Quite persuasive to people who don’t have much of it. She was incredibly convincing and looked strong. She has numerous nicknames in our household varying from the Pritt-Stick, the Pritster and some less generous given from my mother. The men in our house love her, and the women despise her. She does have support from working-class plebs like me.
The falling snow was entrancing the Prime Minister. Even though he’d been PM for more than three years, he still had the same sense of wonderment he’d felt the first time he walked through the door of Chequers as PM in late July 2019. But he knew he wouldn’t have many weekends to enjoy the comparative tranquillity offered by the house Sir Arthur Lee had donated to the nation in 1917. He might still be enjoying the job, but it was time to plan his succession – something few Prime Ministers ever got to do. Most left office after an election defeat or at a time not of their choosing. He had already served for longer than James Callaghan, Gordon Brown and – most importantly – Theresa May.
He flipped open his laptop and googled ‘Prime+Minister+Length+Tenure’. Eight prime ministers had served for between three and four years, but not a single one had served for between four and five years. That’s settled, he thought to himself. 24 July 2023 it is. Four years. A good run. Out of Britain’s fifty-five PMs, he’d be the twenty-sixth longest serving. Mid-table mediocrity, some would say. But any longer and Carrie would have a seizure.
Suddenly there was that sound again. Squirt. Squirt. Squirt.
He looked up. ‘Bloody dog. Shoo, shoo,’ were the words emanating from the prime ministerial mouth. Yet again Dilyn had cocked his leg against the bottom row of bookshelves. If anything settled his decision to plan his departure, it was Dilyn’s dog piss.
There was a big part of him that imagined being an ex-Prime Minister might be considerably more fun that it had been actually being Prime Minister. It would certainly be more lucrative.
Boris kept his decision to himself for several weeks. He knew that the wider the circle of people in the know became, the more likely it was to leak. And sure enough, at the beginning of March, Tim Shipman splashed the story in the Sunday Times under the headline: ‘Boris: I’ve had enough.’ Shipman quoted several sources close to Boris who had told him of the plan to quit on the fourth anniversary of his coming to power. But he had laid his plans well. Apart from Carrie, he had only told four people. He’d said something different to each of them. At long last, he was able to identify the ‘Chatty Rat’ who had, over the previous two years, leaked various confidential stories to the papers.
A week later, he held a press conference and announced his imminent departure, triggering a three-and-a-half-month leadership contest. Seven candidates came forward initially, somewhat cruelly nicknamed ‘the seven dwarves’ by The Sun. The two leading candidates to start with were certainly the most vertically challenged – Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak. They were joined on the hustings by Michael Gove, who was clearly hoping it would be third time lucky. The hope was quickly extinguished when he struggled to get enough MPs to nominate him. Matt Hancock, who had been summarily sacked by Johnson the previous year, pitched himself as the post-Johnson candidate; someone who would restore ‘rigour’ to government. Jeremy Hunt had long pondered another tilt but decided that he quite liked his work–life balance and announced that he would not be standing. Johnny Mercer, sacked by Boris Johnson in April 2021, was the first to throw his hat into the ring. He was, however the last to hand in his nomination papers, having struggled to get the requisite eight nominations.
Liz Truss became a media darling and portrayed herself as the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher – but the new Iron Lady was found to be rather porous when it came to her policy platform. When Priti Patel launched a deliberate dig at her, saying, ‘If you want another Thatcher, vote for the real thing, but beware of pale imitations…’ it was like a dagger through the heart of the Truss campaign.
Gillian Keegan, who had joined the Cabinet the previous year as Education Secretary, was seen as the plucky outsider putting down a marker for the future. She knew she wouldn’t win, but she raised her profile, and whoever won was certain to promote her. Job done.
In the first round of voting among MPs, it became clear who would be progressing to the final round, where Tory members would have their say. Rishi Sunak was ahead of Priti Patel but not by as much as the commentators had predicted. Priti knew that if she were within thirty or so votes of him, it was perfectly possible that she would triumph in the end. And she was: Sunak 133; Patel 102; Hancock 42; Truss 31; Keegan 30; Gove 22; Mercer 6.
There was no second round. All five bottom candidates dropped out, leaving Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel to go forward to the party’s membership. They would have to duke it out all round the country before members started voting in the middle of June. There were ten regional hustings, in which Priti Patel found a new spontaneity and charm which had been largely absent in her media performances over the years.
She knew her party in a way that Rishi didn’t. He hadn’t had to work his way up the way she had. If the party had a G-spot, she knew where to find it. She knew Rishi would appeal to the party matriarchy. He’d want to come across as the perfect son-in-law they’d never had. But she could trump that. She had beliefs – lots of them – whereas no one really knew what Rishi believed in beyond self-promotion. He was bloody good at it, but he was technocrat. There was no passion, no blood or thunder. And that was something Priti knew she could deliver to order.
All leadership campaigns have moments which define them. Cameron doing his ‘look, no notes’ act in 2005 was probably the most memorable, and Priti tasked her campaign team to come up with ideas for one of her own. And so it was that on the weekend ballot papers were sent out to members, Priti Patel fired her Exocet missile. She and Rishi had given the same seven-minute opening speech at each of the hustings so far; so much so that they could each recite each other’s anecdotes word for word. This time, it would be different. The venue couldn’t have been better. The Basildon Sporting Village had played host to David Amess’s famous victory in 1992, which had set John Major on his way to his surprise victory – and these were Priti’s people.
Rishi went on first and made his usual pitch – more houses, a green revolution, cuts in red tape, stand up to China, cut taxes. All very worthy but lacking a little excitement. The audience applauded more out of a sense of duty than of excitement. But he was the front runner. Why take a risk? What a shame he hadn’t consulted David Davis, to learn from his ‘safety first’ approach in 2005.
And then up stepped Priti. Literally. The organisers had thoughtfully put a box behind the lectern for the use of the two vertically challenged leadership contenders. Rishi’s macho pride had led him to dispense with it, with the effect that the TV cameras could only make out the top of his head; his face was masked by the big black microphone muff. Priti didn’t make the same mistake. Up she stepped and delivered her bombshell speech. She made the campaign promise which sent an electric surge through the men and women of south Essex in the audience. As she delivered the pledge, the audience rose to its feet, almost as one, and started cheering and fist-pumping. No one noticed the dozen or so party members who walked out. But the deed was done. The pledge was made. The detail could come later. Couldn’t it?
She woke with a start. The bedside clock told her it was 5.59 a.m. Could it really have happened, or was it just a cruel dream? One way to find out. She reached for the remote control and zapped the TV on the wall at the end of the bed. ‘You’re watching GB News, the fair and balanced way to start your day,’ intoned the voice of Andrew Neil, overlaid on a remix of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.
And then it hit her, as she took in the newsreader’s first headline. ‘The new Prime Minister, Priti Patel, is about to announce her first Cabinet appointments…’ The new Prime Minister… So it was real.
She kicked off the duvet, walked into the bathroom and ran a bath. As she lay in the piping hot water, she began to think about the day ahead. She knew that her Cabinet appointments would set the tone for her premiership. Throughout her career she had been underestimated; now was the time to show them she meant business. She carefully picked up her mobile from the side of the bath, dialled Switch, the nickname in the building for the No. Ten switchboard. ‘Get me John Redwood,’ she said. ‘That’ll show them,’ she thought. She smiled as she slipped back under the water.
It wasn’t long before Redwood’s appointment as the new Chancellor of the Exchequer began to slip out. Tribune’s Grace Blakeley took to her bed following the onset of a fit of the vapours; Owen Jones bashed out a furious column for the Morning Star, where he had eventually found a perch following his acrimonious departure from The Guardian; while a perplexed Robert Peston told the ITV Lunchtime News anchor, Stacey Dooley: ‘I thought I’d seen it all.’ Meanwhile, GB News decided it was time to play the national anthem for the third time that day.
On Sky News, the new political editor, Joe Pike, was struggling to cope with doing live reports on the Breakfast programme while simultaneously reading texts from those within government who purported to know what was in the mind of the Prime Minister. The truth was that there were only three people who did: the PM herself, her new Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson (restored to government for a fifth time), and her chief of staff, Darren Grimes.
The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act had been abolished in the autumn of 2021, with the support of the Labour Party. The Prime Minister knew she could call an election any time she wanted. Her dilemma was whether to do it very quickly or whether to let the parliament run to its natural end. Her priority was to signal to the electorate what they would be getting if they re-elected PM Priti, as the tabloids had dubbed her.
She wanted to signal the continuation of her ‘tough on crime’ agenda. Who better could there be to enforce that than the hard-line, outspoken Leicestershire MP, Andrew Bridgen? Who better to build on the American alliance than the Washington-o-phile Dr Liam Fox as Foreign Secretary?
It really was out with the old and in with the new. Few survived the cull. And all the outgoing ministers were made to do the perp walk up Downing Street. There was no hiding place. Michael Gove emerged into the morning sunlight having had a particularly brutal interview without coffee. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he ignored the cameras and got into his ministerial car for the last time, only to be told by his driver that he’d been told not to take him home, and that he could walk. The humiliation was complete. ‘That was for Boris,’ the Prime Minister thought to herself.
Throughout the day, more and more appointments dripped out. Steve Baker as Business Secretary. Andrea Jenkyns as Education Secretary. Mark Francois at Health. Suella Braverman at Defence. ‘It’s the Return of Proper Conservatives’, screamed a Daily Telegraph headline. ‘The Return of the Living Dead’, bleated The Guardian. ‘Priti Woman Gets Into Gere’, chirped The Sun, in a headline that had anyone under the age of fifty scratching their heads in bemusement.
Later that day it was time for the new Prime Minister to face her first Prime Minister’s Questions. She knew that the whole country would be watching, and she also knew exactly what the Leader of the Opposition would be asking. She hadn’t been in the job long but was slowly finding her feet after a difficult start to her leadership.
Although Jess Phillips had, uniquely, found ways of rattling Boris Johnson’s nerve, she hadn’t been able to impose her will on a party which was riven by factional infighting. The demise of Keir Starmer had been inevitable following Labour’s disastrous performance in the 2022 elections and the revelation in The Guardian that he had been secretly meeting EU leaders to discuss how Britain might re-enter the union. The final straw was the replacement of Lisa Nandy as shadow Foreign Secretary with Lord Mandelson. ‘Namby Pamby Replaces Nandy with Mandy’ was the memorable headline in The Sun. The trade unions revolted; Unite announced they wouldn’t be giving any more money to the Labour Party as long as Sir Keir remained leader, and several of the other big unions followed suit. The party teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.
Jess Phillips had emerged from the pack with a series of speeches and interview performances which had surprised not only party members but herself. Outwardly gobby and self-confident, Phillips had always suffered from imposter syndrome. But she was among the few to understand that the party needed to take a risk. Slowly and surely, Labour MPs, members and trade unions came to the same realisation. Even the right-of-centre media came to have a sneaking regard for the ‘Brummie Mummy’ who called a spade a shovel. Or sometimes a JCB.
As Phillips rose to ask her first question, the House fell silent. ‘The Leader of the Opposition, Ms Jess Phillips,’ roared Speaker Bryant.
‘Mr Speaker, Sir, can I first of all congratulate the Right Honourable Lady on becoming Britain’s third woman Prime Minister?’ At that moment, she realised her mistake, as the Tory benches started chanting ‘3–0 to the Tory boys’, highlighting the fact that there had yet to be a female Labour Prime Minister.
Eventually, the barrage of noise dissipated. Phillips regained her composure and rose again. <ext>Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister bullied her way into No. 10. She sacked anyone in the previous Cabinet who had any semblance of competence – and, to be fair, there weren’t many of those. She made promises to her party which she must have known she can’t keep. And she insulted every immigrant who has come to this country and helped make it is what it is today – and yes, that includes her own parents. If I was her mam, I’d disown her. She’s looking for one word. It’s ‘sorry’.</ext>
Priti Patel knew she mustn’t rise to the bait. Keep calm and carry on, she told herself. She rose to her full height of 5ft 2in. and waited for the House to calm itself.
<ext>Mr Speaker, Sir, I expected better from the Right Honourable Lady. She will soon find out that the promises I made, I will keep. She might not like what I promised, but my predecessor got a mandate from the electorate to implement a Conservative policy platform. I got 80 per cent of the votes from Conservative Party members, and I can assure the Right Honourable Lady that the millions of voters Labour have lost since 2005 who now vote Conservative will find a huge amount in the Gracious Speech which they will approve of. And they will endorse that approval at the election, whenever it comes, and elect a fifth-term Conservative government under the leadership of its third woman leader. What a shame it is that she will never get to experience that honour.</ext>
She sat down to cheers from her MPs, while Labour MPs sat in silence, contemplating another five years in the political wilderness.
And so, the day came. The new session of Parliament was to begin with all the usual pageantry of the state opening. It was the first time that the new King would address the gathered members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. He may not have liked some of what he was to read out, but he gritted his teeth. King William V cleared his throat and started reading. ‘My Lords and Members of the House of Commons. My government’s first priority is the security of the nation and maintaining its borders and law and order…’
The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition were standing at the bar of the House, listening to the King go through the various Bills which the government was committed to introducing. Priti Patel was almost beside herself with excitement, but she knew she couldn’t show it. But she knew what was coming. Something which no newspaper had got wind of. They all assumed she had got cold feet after what had become known as the ‘Basildon Speech’. They were about to find out of which metal she was made. More tungsten than iron, she thought. She looked up at the face of Jess Phillips. ‘Lady, you have no idea what’s about to hit you,’ she smiled to herself.
The King was reaching the end of the speech. He hesitated but knew that he had to continue. Duty was everything. ‘My government will withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Convention on Human Rights and will…’ There was a murmur among their Lordships, with several cries of ‘No!’ The King stopped momentarily, looked up and then continued, ‘and will introduce a Bill to legislate for a referendum on the restoration of capital punishment.’ Uproar ensued. There had never been scenes like it in the House of Lords.
[i] This actually happened.
[ii] This is a genuine email the author received in early 2021 from Harry in Manchester.
The 22 other essays in the series are...
What if …
Randolph Churchill had not died in 1895?
Attlee had died during the First World War?
General Maxwell had not executed the leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising?
Franklin D.Roosevelt had died of polio in 1921?
Ireland had joined the Allies in World War II?
[The News Chronicle had not shut in 1960?]
John Lennon had not been killed in 1980?
Margaret Thatcher had won the 1990 leadership election?
Ross Perot had not stood in the 1992 US Presidential election?
Blair had implemented the Jenkins Report?
The Liberal Democrats had not agreed coalition in 2010?
Eric Joyce had not got into a bar fight in 2012?
Nick Clegg had resigned as Liberal Democrat leader in 2014?
It had been John McDonnell’s turn to hold the banner for the left in the Labour leadership election of 2015?
[David Cameron negotiated harder and agreed a better deal from the EU in 2015/2016?]
Britain had voted Remain in 2016?
Jeremy Corbyn had stood down in late 2017?
[The House of Commons had voted for Theresa May’s deal?]
Theresa May had passed her deal at Meaningful Vote 3?
Boris Johnson wins the 2019 election with only a small majority?
The government handled the pandemic more effectively?
Rebecca Long Bailey won the 2020 Labour leadership contest?
What if President Trump had died of Covid-19?