Bullies on top in anti-bullying week

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This government doesn’t do irony, does it? Hypocrisy? Yes! In spades! Sadie Parker goes a bit deeper into the Patel Bullygate scandal. Ed

The Anti-Bullying Alliance was all ready to go with an impressive package of events, resources and merchandise in support of anti-bullying week, which this year fell on 16-20 November. Their aim: to stem the rising tide of bullying of young people in school and more especially on social media, which in some very tragic cases has led to suicide. The theme was to be ‘united against bullying. There was a special hashtag + emoji on Twitter, the emoji being a heart hugged by two hands.

The week would kick-off with ‘Odd Sock Day’ —the idea being to wear odd socks to remind ourselves that we are all unique. Friday would be the climax, with a brand-new anti-bullying video from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Except things didn’t quite go as planned… The supposed grown-ups in government couldn’t play nice. Their appalling behaviour completely undermined the message of the ‘united against bullying’ campaign.

Boris Johnson couldn’t have made his decision to ignore the findings of the long-suppressed report into Home Secretary Priti Patel’s alleged bullying in the workplace at a worse time if he’d tried. To be sure to create a crisis of epic proportions, he pre-announced he would ignore the report’s findings, Patel would get off with a written warning, and that would be an end of it. No sacking. No resignation. Just a message to the Tory MP WhatsApp group to order them to “form a square around the Prittster”. It was Dom’s Durham flit and Barnard Castle all over again…

Not quite. Back then forty or so MPs had had the courage to pop their heads above the parapet and call for Cummings’s scalp. No Tory MP called for Patel to be returned to the back-benches. Opposition MPs, high-ranking public servants, those who work with bullied children, journalists and masses of ordinary, everyday British citizens — but not one Tory MP. The closest a Tory MP came to censuring the Home Secretary was Sir Roger Gale, who said,

“It has to be in the interest of transparency that the enquiry into the conduct of the Home Secretary is published in full, so that opinion and reaction can be founded on fact rather than media gossip.”

The responses of most Tory MPs who tweeted – and it was a minority of all Tory MPs – were so sickeningly saccharine-sweet, you may be at risk of developing diabetes of the spirit just by reading them. North West Durham MP Richard Holden was one of those who took a tougher line. He went all-out culture warrior, attacked a mysterious “they” who apparently hate Priti Patel and told any of his constituents who don’t condone her bullying to “bugger off”. Prediction: that tweet will adorn many a competing candidate’s campaign literature at the first chance voters get to boot him out.

It was as if these Tory MPs were tweeting from one of Dom’s templates. He hasn’t really gone, has he? He’s just working from home like the rest of us.

Of course, if Priti Patel was any of the wonderful things Tory MPs have queued up to gush about her, she would have had the self-awareness to resign by now. She isn’t and so she hasn’t. Barring malicious complaints against Patel based on gender, race or political affiliation, of which there is no evidence, none of the points MPs are making are relevant anyway. It is callous gaslighting in the extreme, and ought to be against any code of conduct. Tory MPs are saying that because they work with Patel, or have occasionally interacted with her, or even just had a drink with her, they know better than those who work under her day in and day out – and know what it is like to work for her. Imagine being one of Patel’s victims and finding a small army of Tory MPs tweeting to delegitimise your experience like this.

For there have been victims. Complaints against Patel include that she regularly shouts and swears at her staff, belittles them, and makes unreasonable demands. She even threw a briefing folder at the face of one of her staff because it had a page missing and drove another, whom she abused throughout their working relationship and eventually fired because she “didn’t like her face”, to attempt suicide The government later made a £25,000 ‘no liability’ payment to the woman to avoid an industrial tribunal. (Taxpayers’ money, incidentally.)

One industrial tribunal the government will be unable to avoid is that of Sir Philip Rutnam, who was hounded out of his post as top civil servant at the Home Office earlier this year. He found evidence of a pattern of wider bullying behaviour and was himself the target of a vicious briefing campaign. When he confronted Patel about it, she denied any involvement. He was offered a settlement, but refused it, preferring to sue for constructive dismissal. When it finally comes to court, it will likely be the most watched case of the year.

Another casualty was the Director General of Propriety and Ethics, Helen McNamara. It was announced that she would be moving to another department in July this year, after she was named as the person ‘blocking’ Patel from being cleared of bullying. McNamara had interviewed staff at Patel’s previous ministries – the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for International Development, as well as at the Home Office. She refused to tone down the robust criticisms of Patel in her report, which the government found ‘embarrassing’.  

Most damning of all is the resignation of Sir Alex Allan as the Prime Minister’s independent advisor on standards in public life. He felt he had no choice after Boris Johnson chose to override the report he compiled which concluded Patel’s approach amounted to “behaviour that can be described as bullying. To that extent her behaviour has been in breach of the Ministerial Code, even if unintentionally.” While he acknowledged that there was some context to this, in that she might not always have received the level of support she wished for from the Civil Service, it was not an excuse.

Boris Johnson, having failed to get Sir Alex to make his report ‘more palatable’, seized on the cotton wool in which the finding of fault was wrapped. Ah, well, if it wasn’t intentional… Except that’s no defence against bullying. The civil service definition of bullying is, “intimidating or insulting behaviour that makes an individual feel uncomfortable, frightened, less respected or put down.” It acknowledges that legitimate, reasonable and constructive criticism of a worker’s performance is not bullying, but it is hard to imagine that shouting and swearing at people would be construed as such.

To heap irony upon hypocrisy, a year ago Boris Johnson wrote the foreword to the Ministerial code, which includes this choice paragraph:

“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.”

As Prime Minister, he is the head of the civil service and could be expected to show some loyalty to them. Except his government never does, and frequently uses them as a scapegoat. It is not surprising then that he only gave Priti Patel a written warning, and in so doing, gave licence to bullies everywhere in government. For who will dare to come forward and report a minister or MP for bullying now?

For her part, Patel made one of her classic ‘victim-blaming’ apologies. “I’m sorry IF my behaviour has upset people…” (Any upset is your fault, mate.) Then she seized on the mistake in Sir Alex Allan’s report: the incorrect claim that she had never been given any feedback about her behaviour. “Any upset that I’ve caused is completely unintentional and at the time, of course it says it’s in the report, that issues were not pointed out to me”.

Sir Philip Rutnam immediately set the record straight by issuing a statement via the FDA union for civil servants:

“The advice states that no feedback was given to the Home Secretary and that she was therefore unaware of issue that she might otherwise have addressed. This is not correct.

“As early as August 2019, the month after her appointment, she was advised that she must not shout and swear at staff. I advised her on a number of further occasions between September 2019 and February 2020 about the need to treat staff with respect, and to make chances to protect safety and wellbeing.”

How galling Patel’s 2019 tweet sounds now:

“Resorting to bullying and intimidation is not the type of leadership or behaviour anyone should sanction or endorse. In an era where political conviction is ridiculed for the comfort of conformity and compliance, it’s a shame such little respect is shown to the views of others.”

However, it is not just Johnson and Patel who have proved a disappointment to the public, but also the Prime Minister’s new spokesperson, Allegra Stratton. She and Carrie Symonds had gained a lot of public goodwill when the truth about the big bust-up at Number Ten emerged —particularly for the nasty way they were portrayed in the press. Our right-wing media (85 per cent by circulation) appeared to be OK with unelected bureaucrats running the country when it was Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, but the hint that Carrie Symonds or Allegra Stratton might influence Boris Johnson in any way had them screaming blue-murder. “We didn’t go through Brexit to be ruled by unelected women,” was the attitude. Stratton spoke of being in tears for an entire morning after being bullied by Cain, and avoiding him for weeks. She wanted to restore civility and order to Number Ten…

Then Stratton condoned Priti Patel’s bullying, and all that goodwill flew out of the window. So much for a reset. We know now that the rot at the heart of Number 10 was not down to Dominic Cummings or Lee Cain, toxic though the pair were. No, its source is Boris Johnson. So long as he is PM, the UK government will be a putrid, rotten cesspit where rampant corruption goes unchecked, ministers are chosen according to ideology rather than merit, and nothing they do wrong, no matter how morally repugnant, will ever be enough to get them fired.

One small consolation in this quagmire is that very few of the MPs in the West Country Bylines catchment area – Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset – tweeted to condone Priti Patel’s bullying. Of course, it could be because they don’t use Twitter much anyway, or because they’re not into WhatsApp so missed the PM’s message, or simply because they had better things to do. I’d like to think it’s because after the public’s reaction to Dom’s lockdown jaunt, rampant corruption, the school exams fiasco, the continuing saga of an exorbitantly expensive sub-par test/track/trace operation, the food standards betrayal, and the free school meals debacle, they’re a little wiser than they were of yore. They smelt the whiff of dead feline and eventual U-turn, and kept their heads down.

Kudos to North Devon MP Selaine Saxby, who not only didn’t tweet or re-tweet (RT) in support of Priti Patel, but instead quote-tweeted (QT) Chelmsford MP Vicky Ford’s tweet about online bullying of girls and women. She’s certainly learnt her lesson from the reaction to her free school meals gaffe.

Here is the list of local MPs who have had the bad taste to tweet in support of a bully during anti-bullying week:

CORNWALL

Sheryll Murray – quoted Iain Duncan Smith

DEVON

Kevin Foster – issued a suck-up tweet

DORSET

Conor Burns – issued a “look at me with Priti” photo tweet

Sir Robert Syms – re-tweeted John Howell, James Brokenshire and Sheryll Murray

SOMERSET

Liam Fox – without irony, he wrote a tweet complaining of an orchestrated reaction, and then tweeted it as part of an orchestrated reaction

Marcus Fysh – tweeted “haters gonna hate”, as if Patel is the victim of bullying, because the public finds her behaviour so outrageous

Jacob Rees-Mogg – issued a suck-up tweet in that magniloquent way of his

If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy ‘Priti Vicious Behaviour’ by Tom Scott.