The Prime Minister today backed his Home Secretary Priti Patel over the findings of an independent report that accused her of breaching the ‘ministerial code’ over allegations of bullying.
The report conducted by the PM’s independent standards advisor Sir Alex Allan showed that Mrs Patel had ‘not consistently met the high standards required by the ministerial code of treating her civil servants with consideration and respect’ amid accusations that she shouted and swore at staff when displeased with them. It also showed, however, that the Home Secretary had become increasingly frustrated at the lack of lack of support from the Home Office, something that the report determines was a ‘legitimate feeling’ as well as her ‘justifiably’ unhappy reaction to the lack of responsiveness by many of her staff compared to those who worked with her when she was Secretary for the Department of International Development under Theresa May.
However, the report went on to state that her ‘approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying.’ It comes at the end of a tumultuous year for Prime Minister Boris Johnson with regards to his cabinet and advisors as Mrs Patel joins Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson in being scrutinised for actions taken whilst in the role of various offices of state. It also follows the resignation of the Prime Minister’s controversial chief aide Dominic Cummings from Downing Street just last week.
The Prime Minister has rejected its findings, allegedly on the basis of Mrs Patel’s behaviour being in breach ‘unintentionally’ and the fact that she was unaware of the impact of her behaviour at the time. By keeping her job, Mrs Patel is the first known Cabinet member in history to have been found breaking ministerial conduct by a report such as Sir Alex’s and remain in their job. Sir Alex, former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, upon hearing of the Prime Minister’s response, offered his resignation, quitting his role as the Prime Minister’s Independent Advisor on Ministerial Standards. He said in a statement, ‘I recognise that it is for the Prime Minister to make a judgement on whether actions by a minister amount to a breach… But I feel it is right that I should now resign from my position’. Sir Alex’s departure has raised concern among other civil servants, including Johnathan Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life who has called the episode involving the Home Secretary something that ‘raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the current arrangements for investigating to breaches of the Ministerial Conduct’.
However, in the hours before the Prime Minister made his decision, many of the cabinet and other Conservative MPs tweeted their support for Mrs Patel, including former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who is currently locked in an ongoing dispute with his own party as to whether to restore the whip to his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, has stated that he would have sacked the Home Secretary. This has been echoed by Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey who suggested that it was ‘one rule for him (Boris Johnson) and his friends and another rule for everyone else.’
I’ve worked with @pritipatel for a number of years & always found her to be strong, robust & determined to get the job done, she’s a hard working & good Home Secretary. There is a history of poor civil service leadership at the Home Office & the report is critical of that.
— Iain Duncan Smith MP (@MPIainDS) November 19, 2020
The former leader shows his support for the Home Secretary (above), whilst Sir Keir Starmer (below) shows his opposition to the Prime Minister’s decision .
Yet again, the Prime Minister has been found wanting when his leadership has been tested.
If I were Prime Minister, the Home Secretary would have been removed from her job. [Thread]
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) November 20, 2020
Mrs Patel has offered a public apology in which she says sorry for ‘behaviour in the past’ that has upset people, and has acknowledged that her ‘direct’ approach has led to her becoming ‘frustrated’. The Prime Minister’s support will keep her in her role, and her support among Conservative colleagues is thought to be strong. Boris Johnson has also allegedly sent a message to government colleagues asking them to ‘form a square around the Pritster [Priti Patel]’ in the days that follow and the attacks that may come from the opposition in Parliament.
This is not the first time Mrs Patel has been found to have breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct. In 2017, she was forced to step down as Secretary for International Development after she failed to declare to then Prime Minister Theresa May meetings she held with Israeli Officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with no other officials present. This time, she has not been asked to stand down from her role as Home Secretary despite the allegations of bullying that have led to the report that was read by the Prime Minister and briefed to the media by sources inside the government.
Number 10 has suggested it does not intend to publish the report in its entirety and that the Prime Minister considers the matter closed. It is unlikely that this will spell the end of the controversy given the upcoming employment tribunal with regards to Sir Philip Rutnam, who was Permanent Secretary to the Home Office before his resignation in January this year. Sir Philip, who is suing the Home Secretary for constructive dismissal, has accused her of waging a ‘vicious and orchestrated’ campaign against him. The tribunal, which is set to commence in January, will possibly see aspects of the report yet to be made public come to light if deemed necessary to the case.