– and there’s a chance it could rear its head again
By Tom Rayner, political correspondent news.sky.com
The Cabinet Office report into whether or not Priti Patel bullied her civil servants has been sitting on the prime minister’s desk for months.
Since March, political reporters have asked about the progress of the inquiry into the home secretary on a near-daily basis, only to be told by Boris Johnson’s official spokesman: “I don’t have any update for you.”
It’s not entirely clear why this week was chosen as the moment to finally publish the findings, but the controversial nature of the prime minister’s response might at least explain why there had been such a delay in Number 10 in coming forward with it.
Sir Alex Allan, his independent adviser on ministerial ethics, had concluded Ms Patel had behaved in a way that constituted bullying, and was in breach of the ministerial code.
Normally it would then be for the prime minister to determine whether that breach constituted a sackable offence.
Instead, Mr Johnson decided that was immaterial because in his eyes there was no breach.
He was within his rights to make that call, because he has the final say on matters relating to the code, but it is a fact there is no precedent for prime minister contradicting the conclusion of their ministerial ethics adviser following such an investigation.
The response of Sir Alex was to immediately resign from his post.
The justification Number 10 gave for this unprecedented approach was that the prime minister had to consider the matter “in the round”.
His spokesman said Mr Johnson had concluded there was no breach because any offence caused was inadvertent and that the home secretary had not been made aware of it. He went on to say that given Ms Patel had made an “unreserved apology” the matter was now “closed”.
But is it? Has the “unreserved apology”, as Ms Patel described it herself, done enough for the issue to go away? The short answer is no.
Already opposition politicians are expressing outrage that the home secretary’s apology was for the upset caused, rather than the behaviour itself.
The full publication of the report is another issue that is likely to linger.
The government have said the final document cannot be published without compromising the private information of those who contributed evidence to it.
However, Yvette Cooper, who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee, has already requested a copy for scrutiny of whether key evidence has been overlooked in the summary that was published on Friday. A political row will ensue if that is denied.
Similarly, Lord Evans, the chair of the Committee for Standards in Public Life, has said Sir Alex’s resignation was “deeply concerning” and indicated it would now be looked at as part of his ongoing inquiry into the ministerial code.
On top of all that, the former senior civil servant whose resignation sparked the inquiry in the first place has raised questions about whether the findings presented on Friday were accurate.
Sir Philip Rutnam, who quit as permanent secretary at the Home Office in February, has said it is false to claim the home secretary was not made aware of the offence that her behaviour had caused.
In a statement, Sir Philip said Ms Patel had indeed been warned about shouting at staff in August and September of last year, and again in February of this year.
All of this is likely to be raised at the employment tribunal Sir Philip has launched for what he claims was constructive dismissal.
But that tribunal, if it goes ahead, is not expected to be held until next September.
The select committees that are indicating they want to investigate these matters are unlikely to move forward particularly quickly.
Given the reaction from the Conservative backbenches has been broadly supportive of the prime minister’s decision, it is possible to see why Downing Street chose to publish the findings on Friday.
The matter may not be as closed as Mr Johnson claims it to be, but given the next few weeks are likely to be dominated by a focus on the spending review, Brexit talks, vaccine rollouts and rows over changing coronavirus restrictions, the scope for this issue to remain at the top of the agenda is limited.
That does not mean Ms Patel is safe in her post for good.
There is no doubt she has been damaged by this process, and there’s plenty of scope for it to rear its head once again.
But Number 10 appears to have concluded that the storm created by sticking by a home secretary, who is popular with Conservative MPs and party members alike, will soon be blown away by the bigger political storms on the horizon.
From the Waugh Zone Huffpost uk:
“form a square around the prittster”
One Tory insider believes that like the Cummings case, the story is not going to go away.
“Patel needs to go, she needs to resign,” they told me.
“Keir Starmer if he’s smart is going to frame this as a condition of Johnson’s premiership – who do you stand up for? You’re a bully, you don’t care about the little guy.
“It’s the elitist thing – it’s Barnard Castle, it’s Priti Patel.”
Matters were made worse when it emerged that the PM texted Tory colleagues urging them to “form a square around the prittster”, which Stratton [Allegra Stratton PM’s new Press Secretary] was again forced to defend by stressing Patel was going to have a “testing day” – that is true, and it’s because she broke the ministerial code.