Former civil servants have labelled the prime minister’s backing of home secretary Priti Patel – despite a probe finding she had bullied officials – “unacceptable” and warned it sends a “worrying message” about the state of the ministerial code.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life has pledged to examine how breaches of the ministerial code are investigated, while former first civil service commissioner and Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Normington said Johnson’s decision to back Patel was “completely unacceptable”.
It is “the first time, as far as I can remember, we have a prime minister that doesn’t seem willing to stand up for high standards in public life”, he added.
Normington’s comments came after Patel said she was “absolutely sorry for the upset that has been caused” by her behaviour. An investigation has concluded she broke the ministerial code and that she had failed to treat civil servants with consideration and respect in a way that "could be described as bullying".
However, Boris Johnson said he did not consider Patel to have broken the ministerial code or bullied staff. Shortly after a summary of the report’s findings were published, the PM’s ethics adviser who had conducted the resignation, Sir Alex Allen, resigned.
Lord Jonathan Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said it was “deeply concerning” that Allan – “a man of great wisdom and integrity” – had resigned.
“This episode raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the current arrangements for investigating and responding to breaches of the ministerial code,” he said. He said the CSPL, which advises the prime minister on ethical standards in public life, would examine the issue “urgently” as part of an upcoming review that was announced in September.
Normington said this weekend that both Johnson and Patel needed to recognise the report’s finding that the home secretary had bullied staff in multiple departments. Patel has not admitted to bullying, but said: “If I have upset people, that has been completely unintentional, that was not my intention.”
Normington told BBC Radio 4: “Although it was good she apologised it wasn’t an apology for bullying – there has been no acknowledgement for her or the prime minister that she bullied, in fact the prime minister has simply put aside the findings of a report and the of independent adviser Alex Allan that she is a bully and you shouldn’t have bullies in government.
“We have to put ourselves in the position of the bullied. No one has spoken up for them, some of them are junior staff and who will be sitting there today thinking that their voice has not been heard and you cannot rely on the prime minister to stand up for them.”
Former Foreign Office perm sec Lord Peter Ricketts said the PM’s response to the report sent “a worrying message about the state of this ministerial code and its implementation”.
“There’s an impression that personal links to ministers matter more to this government. All of this is a worry,” he said. “It’s time that ministers restore confidence between ministers and civil servants.”
Alex Thomas, a programme director at the Institute for Government, said the handling of the report threatened the “institutions and political norms and safeguards we have in our system”.
“The fact that the prime minister has just decided she didn’t break ministerial code shows the weakness of that.
"To me, this is less a public loss of confidence, although there is an aspect of that, and more about safeguards that exist within the state to prevent wrongdoing," he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
Former home secretary Ken Clarke described the outcome as an “awkward situation” and suggested Patel should have resigned.
“It was assumed before that if an investigation was taken this far and if anyone was found to have broken the ministerial code, I don’t think anyone would have doubted the minister, to use the old phrase, would have to consider his or her position,” he toldTimes Radio on Saturday.
The Tory MP also said he was concerned by the resignation of Allan, whom he called “quiet and reasonable”.
Last week, former Treasury permanent secretary Nick Macpherson said in reference to the report that "bullying at work is never justified". He added that "things have to be very bad indeed" for an investigation to find a minister has broken the code.
MPs 'form a square' around Patel
The criticism came amid a flood of support for the home secretary from Conservative MPs and former ministers. A leaked WhatsApp message revealed this weekend that Johnson had urged his party to "form a square" around Patel.
Former business secretary Andrea Leadsom said the home secretary was "strong and forthright in her views which is one of her great assets" and that she had "never seen her bully anyone".
Former work and pensions secretary and prominent backbencher Sir Iain Duncan Smith argued that Allen’s report “references the poor behaviour in the department” as well as criticising Patel’s behaviour.
Allan's report noted that the Home Office had not been "as flexible as it could have been in responding to the home secretary’s requests and direction". He said the civil service needed to "reflect on its role during this period".
Duncan Smith said the finding raised " a real question mark of the civil service".
"[Patel] didn't just erupt, there were problems that were forcing her to the point where she simply couldn't get the job done," he said, adding: "Nobody comes out of this brilliantly."
Sir Bernard Jenkin, head of parliament's Liaison Committee, said on Twitter that "Priti may have lessons to learn, but so have some far better educated officials who [should] know better."
Earlier this year, Jenkin told CSW he had "little doubt that this rather diminutive, petite but fiery, non-Oxbridge, north-London Ugandan Asian has been subject to a certain amount of presumptive behaviour challenges... by people who think they know much better"
He also said at the time that the prime minister could "not be faulted" for his handling of bullying allegations against the home secretary. "It’s absolutely as in the cabinet manual, they’re doing it with the involvement of the prime minister’s adviser on the ministerial code, who is scrupulously independent," he said.
Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross said it was “ultimately it is the choice for the prime minister who sits at his cabinet table”. However, he suggested the full report into the investigation should be made public.
“I actually think there’s an argument we do see the full detail of these reports,” he said.