Priti Patel’s contempt for ethical standards is what put her in her job – it was never going to give Boris Johnson reason to sack her.
When Dominic Cummings announced he would be leaving Downing Street, some excited commentators speculated that this might signal a fresh new phase in Boris Johnson’s government. “Will the departure of Dominic Cummings help the Tories look kinder, gentler and more competent?” the BBC’s Nick Robinson asked, breathlessly.
As it turned out, Cummings left rather more abruptly than he’d been planning, after internal feuding at Number 10 boiled over into the War of Princess Nut Nuts. And Nick Robinson’s question was emphatically answered today when Johnson refused to take action against home secretary Priti Patel, despite an official report finding that she had breached the ministerial code by bullying civil servants. This was followed by the swift resignation of Sir Alex Allan, the distinguished public servant who had been the Prime Minister’s long-standing independent adviser on ministerial conduct.
Announcing that he had “full confidence” in his home secretary, Johnson declared he “considers this matter now closed”. It was an echo of the words he had used to try to close down the uproar over Cummings’ flagrant breach of the lockdown when this first came to public attention back in May. But, as with his attempt to “draw a line under the matter” then, this will do nothing to quell public revulsion at the government’s tolerance of completely unacceptable behaviour.
It appears that Sir Alex Allan had actually gone out of his way to try to find some “mitigating factors” to soften the unambiguous findings of his report. While refusing to publish these in full, Downing Street claimed that Allan had found “no evidence that she was aware of the impact of her behaviour”, and that Patel had been “frustrated” by civil servants’ “lack of responsiveness”.
For her part, Patel has issued a non-apology of the sort to which we have become all too used, saying: “I am sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people. It has never been my intention to cause upset to anyone.” No apology for the actual behaviour, of course, or even an acknowledgment that it was wrong. One can picture the smirk on her lips as she wrote it.
Unless the report is leaked, or further details of Patel’s behaviour emerge as part of an industrial tribunal being brought by her former permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam, who was hounded out of his job by anonymous briefings against him earlier this year, we may never know exactly how civil servants had incurred her displeasure.
Had they questioned the legality of actions that Patel had proposed? Raised an eyebrow at the wisdom and practicality of a scheme to set up detention centres for asylum seekers on Ascension Island and St Helena in the South Atlantic? Had they perhaps ventured the opinion that it was inadvisable for the Home Secretary to be undermining the rule of law by publicly attacking the lawyers who ensure that it is upheld – an incident that may have inspired a knife attack on an immigration solicitor?
There’s little doubt that civil servants will be dismayed that the government has shown such contempt for their wellbeing, coming as this does on top of demands that they cease homeworking and return to their desks at Whitehall, despite the ongoing risk of infection. It is not impossible that they may decide to take some form of industrial action – and they would be well justified in doing so.
What’s certain is that this government has not changed its spots. Priti Patel is one of the core group of Vote Leave ministers, and it was never likely that Johnson would take action against any member of this group, all of whom are implicated in the lies and illegality of the 2016 referendum campaign that ultimately put him in Number 10. Indeed, he has gone to extraordinary lengths to defend her, sending a WhatsApp message to Tory MPs the day before the report’s findings became known with the instruction: “Time to form a square around the prittster.”
His MPs were quick to oblige, issuing a blizzard of similarly worded tweets in declare their undying support for the nation’s most prominent workplace bully – and this in national Anti-Bullying Week. It seems likely that this orchestrated move was the work of Chloe Westley, formerly of the so-called “Taxpayers’ Alliance” and Vote Leave, and now in charge of social media for Number 10. The MPs’ chorus was joined by some very odd-looking Twitter accounts indeed.
When Boris Johnson appointed his first cabinet last year, Molly Scott Cato and I examined the records of its members in a website we called Cabinet of Horrors. We concluded that Johnson’s ministers had, almost without exception, been appointed on the basis of their willingness to flout the rule of law and treat ethical standards with contempt. On these criteria, Priti Patel’s record of deeply unethical behaviour made her a shoo-in.
He was hardly going to sack her for demonstrating precisely the qualities that had landed her the job.