It was a telling phrase. Priti Patel is planning to bring in new legislation to stop refugees staying in Britain this year. According to one MP she spoke to, she said proudly that "the left are going to have a meltdown".

Helpful stuff. Suddenly all the trappings disappeared and you could see the true motivation driving government action. The objective world was not pertinent. The concept of problems emerging and being addressed was irrelevant. The real issue was the culture war – the appeal to divisive wedge issues, to governing on behalf of one tribal group against another.

Angering the left evidently isn't some charming side-effect of her legislation, or proof that she is pursuing a successful course. It is the purpose of the legislation. This sounds deranged, a government operating according to the pleasure it derives from upsetting its opponents. But in fact it is an increasingly common way of conducting politics.

That, after all, is what we see online when someone proudly proclaims that they've been 'blocked by X' – the celebration of having upset those who think differently. That's the emotional undercurrent to the manner in which so much debate is conducted online, trying to frame statements in the way that will most provoke the other side, gaining a kind of succour from their offence.

This is the blood-circulation of tribalism, the way it rots the brain, making your sense of the world dependent on the reactions of those like you and unlike you, rather than the empirical reality of it. Ironically it entails a kind of slavery, where your own sense of who you are and what you want is defined in the negative by your opponents. It is now, and has been for some time, the operating manual of British government. Patel's response to the made-up refugee crisis is an example of it.

We can glean a couple of likely proposals in Patel's planned legislation from the news report on her chat with Tory MPs. "She talked about how the asylum system is broken, is exploited by leftie Labour-supporting lawyers who are sending us legal letters every day to try to stop us removing people from this country," one told the Times.

It's true the asylum system is broken. The Home Office takes months – and sometimes years – to process claims, leaving people in a state of half life, subsisting on about £5 a day, unable to work, unable to socialise, unable to provide for their children beyond mere sustenance. But that is not the kind of broken Patel is talking about. She is targeting the legal rights for asylum seekers. It seems likely that the home secretary plans to limit appeal rights and block new information being brought to asylum cases after interview.

The "leftie Labour-supporting lawyers" she despises so much are, in reality, guardians of the legal rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our society.  How they vote is irrelevant. Patel has no knowledge of it, although her assumption that anyone who opposes her must be in league with the opposition speaks volumes.

The people they protect are thrust into a system that is insanely complicated and impenetrable, even to someone who grew up here and had English as their first language.

In many cases there is no written guidance about the conditions they have faced at home. This was the situation, for instance, with certain ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The Home Office stated simply that Kabul was safe. In fact, if you were a member of certain ethnic groups, it was not. Lawyers, advisers and charities therefore often commission expert guidance themselves and submit it, either in the initial application phase or in the court. This is the kind of new information used to make a claim fair. But it gets in the way of removals, so it seems a likely target for Patel's coming legislation.

There are other ways in which providing new information is crucial. Women who experience sexual violence are often reticent about mentioning it, especially to someone they've never met in a clinical processing centre in Croydon, and this reticence means that valid claims are rejected. Often it has to be coaxed out of them by more sympathetic figures, and can then be added to the application.

As things stand, lawyers and support groups can raise this new information after the initial interview, when the case is still being considered, or make it the basis of a fresh claim if the first one is rejected. These are not examples of gaming the system. They are about making sure we get the decisions right. And the stakes in this matter are incredibly high. If you get them wrong, people die. They are sent back to the hell which they have escaped.

The refugee convention developed out of a terrible memory of the war. In 1939, the St Louis carried 900 Jewish passengers from Europe to Cuba, then Miami, then Canada. Each one turned them down. So it sailed back to Nazi Germany, where a third of those on board were murdered in the Holocaust. That was the shameful memory that energised the post-war refugee system. It created a simple moral principle: Never again.

Now there is a new moral principle guiding those in charge: Own the libs. This is what motivates government action. That is the shining light towards which policy is directed. And those sacrificed in its name are just the casualties of the absolute requirement that it be fulfilled.

Ian Dunt is editor of His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out later this year.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.