‘We have a moral vacuum at the heart of government’: Dave Penman on the PM’s Patel decision

Pledges by Boris Johnson about tackling bullying in the future are not only hollow but insulting following last week’s events, says the FDA general secretary
Priti Patel and Boris Johnson Photo: PA

By Dave Penman

23 Nov 2020

Aficionados of my writing will know I usually try to start my piece with a joke, one that usually sets up the point of the article, if there is one, at the end. I can, however, find no humour in the events of the last few days and the extraordinary decision of the prime minister.

I want to centre this piece on those who have been forgotten in all of the kerfuffle, both by the prime minister and the sycophants who were tweeting their support for the home secretary. This sorry saga started because of the inappropriate behaviour of a secretary of state, one of the most powerful people in the country. Bullying is an abuse of power, and ministers in government departments are very powerful people. If a minister shouts and swears at any member of staff, never mind junior ones, then it’s unfathomable that there could be no recognition on their part of the impact this may have, particularly when this is not an isolated incident.

Stop for a moment and think what it would be like to have to work in those circumstances, because it’s quite clear that at no point the prime minister did. Instead, he sought to use his statement, dragged out of him after sitting on this inconvenient report for around six months, to justify, contextualise and excuse the behaviour.

The prime minister took a political decision, ignoring the evidence and the advice from Sir Alex Allan. What is also astonishing, is he did so knowing that Sir Alex would be resigning and that details of the evidence would be in the public domain. His disregard for the impact of his decision on the victims of the home secretary’s conduct, the longer-term impact it would have on civil servants who may need to complain about bullying, harassment or even sexual harassment from ministers, and the message it sends about the standards of conduct in public life was laid bare for all to see.

In weighing all of those elements up, he decided his priority was to “stick with Prit”, as he put it in parliament just days after the investigation was announced. His decision was one that was centred on the interests of the Conservative Party, not the victims, not the civil service and not good government. In a process that is shrouded in secrecy, it was the only nakedly transparent element of it.

Whether it comes a surprise to anyone is neither here nor there, we now have a vacuum at the heart of government over how standards in public life will be upheld. This moral vacuum is bookended by some extraordinary acts of principle. Sir Philip Rutnam resigned as permanent secretary at the Home Office, exposing these issues in the first place. The team who assembled the report did so with integrity and impartiality, which ultimately led to the resignation of Sir Alex Allan given the prime minister’s refusal to accept the evidence of a breach of the Ministerial Code. If there is some comfort to be found in all of this, this is it.

But let’s get back to those who should be at the centre of this story, those who were bullied and those who may face similar behaviour in the future. Weasel words will have no meaning now to them. Pledges from the prime minister about the future are not only hollow but insulting. The prime minister chose to include in his foreword to the ministerial code the words “There must be no bullying and no harassment”. These words were unequivocal but they are meaningless if they are not followed up by action. It is always going to be a difficult political decision to enforce these when a minister if found to have breached the standards rightly expected of them. These do not make easy political decisions but, in the end, the prime minister is supposed to make the right decision for the civil service and the country.

That he is so blatantly incapable or unwilling of doing so simply reinforces the point that we have been banging on about for several years now – that the ministerial code is not fit for purpose when it comes to dealing with conduct issues such as these. As we saw in parliament, time and time again, unless there is a fully transparent and independent process, political interests will always outweigh those of the victims of inappropriate behaviour. That, sadly, is how our political system works.

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