That – and watching her father’s business blossom under Thatcher’s rule. “It was just a fascinating time for us. We’re a very humble working class family and our lives changed in the 1980s.
“I remember when Mum and Dad first put an extension on that house and I remember my father saying to me: ‘We can only do this because we have the freedom to succeed’.” I also remember them getting a new car,” she says.
“Dad taught me how to buy shares; he was always looking at investment opportunities. We started out with nothing, so we loved Thatcher in our house.”
Cecil Parkinson, Conservative party chairman under Thatcher and later, William Hague, paid the odd visit to the shop as the MP for Hertsmere.
“He literally just said to me, ‘haven’t you joined the Conservative Party yet?’” she recalls.
“I was quite taken aback. I wasn’t at university at the time; I think I was still in school. I wasn’t that politically minded but I did love the news. I would sit in the shop reading all the newspapers as well as everything else I was tasked to do. Anyway, then he wrote to me and said: ‘Fill this form in’, so I did.”
Patel went on to study economics at Keele University before pursuing postgraduate studies in British government and politics at the University of Essex. After graduating, she became an intern at Conservative Central Office before heading up the press office of the Referendum Party, a single-issue Eurosceptic party, in the mid-1990s.
She returned to the Tories in 1997, before leaving three years later to work for Weber Shandwick, a PR consulting firm, and later Diageo, the alcoholic beverages company, before going back to Weber Shandwick in 2007 as director of corporate and public affairs. Her closest friends these days seem to be people she worked with, rather than her old classmates.
“I’m not in touch with anyone from school” she admits. “But I have a close circle of friends who are the biggest anchors in my life. They’re the ones who phone me up at the weekend and check in. I had a message from one friend last night, which said: “Thinking of you, just sending you some support”.
The Class of 2010
Having tried and failed to be elected as the Tory MP for Nottingham North in the 2005 general election, Patel was finally successful five years later in Witham, a new constituency in central Essex created after a boundary review. Tipped by David Cameron as one to watch, she won with a majority of 15,196 and was swiftly drafted into the No 10 policy unit after three years as a newbie.
Along with fellow Conservative MPs Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss – now her Cabinet colleagues – Patel was considered one of the “Class of 2010” who represented the party’s “new Right”. Together with Chris Skidmore, they co-authored Britannia Unchained, a book published in 2012 that advocated reducing the size of the welfare state and emulating the working conditions in countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea rather than those of other European nations.
In 2015, she was promoted to employment minister under Iain Duncan Smith at the Department for Work and Pensions, helping him to reform the welfare system through the introduction of Universal Credit.
But it was the EU Referendum a year later that really propelled her into the public eye. Identified as the perfect “poster girl” for the Vote Leave campaign, as Patel herself puts it with trademark bluntness: “I’m a lifelong Brexiteer. I’m not someone who suddenly decided: ‘Oh, I quite fancy this because it might be in my political favour’. When the ERM [Exchange Rate Mechanism] came in my parents nearly lost everything. That’s why I’m a Leaver.”
Shrewdly backing Theresa May over Andrea Leadsom to replace Cameron following the Brexit vote, she was rewarded with the job of Secretary of State for the now defunct Department for International Development. But she was forced to resign after 16 months in the post following a furore over a trip to Israel and subsequent meetings with Israelis in Westminster and New York which she had failed to disclose to the prime minister.
After two years as a backbencher, and fierce critic of May’s Brexit deal (“I would have told the EU in particular to sod off with their excessive financial demands”), her loyalty to Boris Johnson in the 2019 Tory leadership race once again saw her rewarded – this time with the heavyweight post of Home Secretary.
Tasked with introducing a post-Brexit, “points-based” immigration system – as well as ending the life-threatening practice of thousands of migrants crossing the English Channel in the back of lorries or in dinghies, Patel has had her work cut out.
It also didn’t help when, during a seemingly fractious time with her own civil servants, she was accused of bullying by Sir Philip Rutnam, permanent secretary of the Home Office, who ended up leaving the government with a £340,000 settlement and no accepted liability .
Her robust stance on crime and punishment has seen her described as a “modern day Norman Tebbit” – but it is her controversial Rwandan plan that has undoubtedly caused the most ire among her many detractors. Some have questioned how she – as the daughter of immigrants – can pursue such an aggressive policy.
“Well the difference is my parents came here legally,” she says. “I’m a human being as well, which is why I have always been very open and vocal about having safe and legal routes to our country.”