Unprecedented – Priti Patel broke ministerial code on bullying but keeps her job, civil servant quits

Downing Street Whitehall

The head of the inquiry into claims of bullying by Priti Patel at the Home Office has resigned after the prime minister ignored the findings that the home secretary broke the ministerial code.

Boris Johnson’s ruling that Patel should not step down is an unprecedented act, forcing the resignation of Sir Alex Allan, the prime minister’s adviser on the ministerial code.

Allan chaired the report investigating Patel’s conduct and found the home secretary had “not consistently met the high standards required by the ministerial code of treating her civil servants with consideration and respect”.

He added: “Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals.

“To that extent her behaviour has been in breach of the ministerial code, even if unintentionally.”

Ministerial code and PM’s empty words

Convention dictates that ministers who break the code resign from their position – as Patel was forced to in November 2017. However, Johnson – on, coincidentally the last day of “anti-bullying week” – ruled that Patel did not break the ministerial code and so keeps his highly polarising home secretary and strong Brexit ally in his cabinet.

The ministerial code sets out the standards of conduct expected of ministers and how they discharge their duties. In the foreword to the updated official ministerial code (August 2019), none other than Boris Johnson states that in order to “win back the trust of the British people, we must uphold the very highest standards of propriety –and this code sets out how we must do so.

“There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest.

“The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document –integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest –must be honoured at all times; as must the political impartiality of our much admired civil service.”

Patel says ‘sorry’ for past behaviour as old tweet resurfaces

A statement from Number 10 said Johnson has “full confidence” in Patel and “considers this matter now closed”, while the PM’s spokesperson said Johnson takes bullying “very seriously” but “does not believe that Priti Patel is a bully”.

Patel has apologised and in a statement said: “I am direct and have at time got frustrated”. She added: “It has never been my intention to cause upset to anyone”, and, “I am sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people.”

Just last year Patel tweeted: “Resorting to bullying & intimidation is not the type of the leadership or behaviour anyone should sanction or endorse.”

Patel was a backbencher then and commenting on suggestions at the time that then PM Theresa May should strip the whip from rebel MPs.

Patel’s tweet continues: “In an era where political conviction is ridiculed for the comfort of conformity & compliance, its a shame such little respect is shown to the views of others.”

Patelk ‘quite clearly crossed the line’

Only a summary of the full report has been released by the government. The investigation into Patel’s conduct came after Sir Philip Rutnam, the top civil servant in the Home Office quit his role in March and accused the home secretary of launching a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him.  Allan become the latest in a lengthening list of top civil servants to resign in the first year of Johnson’s government.

Former housing minister Simon Clarke was “made available” by Number 10 to BBC Radio 4’s World at One and said he was sure Patel will “move forward” from the controversy, adding:“She will bring her very considerable passion for reforming both crime and immigration but doing so in a way which makes sure that relations with officials are always appropriate.”

Lord [Gus] O’Donnell, the former head of the civil service was scathing in his assessment and told the World at One that Patel has “quite clearly crossed the line” and should have resigned.

But many Tories have sprung to the defence of a home secretary who remains very popular within their ranks.

Tugendhat – Patel has ‘been very kind to many’

Tom Tugendhat, a leading light on the backbenches – and tipped as the next possible PM by Labour’s former deputy leader Tom Watson – tweeted the reason why Patel is supported is “because she’s hard working, determined and has been very kind to many. She knows her own mind was a great asset to @CommonsForeign and is doing a tough job in @ukhomeoffice.”

The Secret Barrister replied to Tugendhat, asking: “Which part of her support for capital punishment, mindless bullying, repeated breaches of the Ministerial Code and incessant hatemongering towards foreigners do you admire the most?”

In his response to the story, Labour’s Keir Starmer tweeted:” 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.”

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