Boris Johnson backs Home Secretary after bullying inquiry, but PM’s adviser resigns

20 November 2020, 12:03 | Updated: 20 November 2020, 15:03

Home Secretary Priti Patel
Home Secretary Priti Patel. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Boris Johnson has backed Home Secretary Priti Patel after a bullying inquiry found she had "not consistently met the high standards expected of her", prompting his adviser on Ministerial Standards to resign.

Sir Alex Allan resigned after a leaked report found the Home Secretary had broken ministerial rules on behaviour.

Boris Johnson judged that the ministerial code was not breached by Ms Patel amid allegations of bullying despite a report by Sir Alex saying that the Home Secretary had "not consistently met the high standards expected of her".

Read more: Cressida Dick says she won't be drawn into 'gossip' about Home Secretary Priti Patel

Responding to the news, Ms Patel said she is "sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people".

She added: “It has never been my intention to cause upset to anyone. I am very grateful for the hard work of thousands of civil servants who help to deliver the Government’s agenda.

“I care deeply about delivering on the commitments we have made to the people of this country and I acknowledge that I am direct and have at times got frustrated. I would like to thank the Prime Minister for his support.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said if he had been Prime Minister, the Home Secretary would have been removed from her job.

In a statement, he wrote: "Yet again, the Prime Minister has been found wanting when his leadership has been tested. If I were Prime Minister, the Home Secretary would have been removed from her job.

"It is hard to imagine another workplace in the UK where this behaviour would be condoned by those at the top.

"The Government should be setting an example. Instead, it is one rule for Boris Johnson and his friends, another for everyone else.

"The Prime Minister has previously said he 'loathes bullying'. Yet when one of his own ministers is found to have bullied their staff he ignores the damning report sat on his desk and instead protects them.

"In the interest of transparency, the report into Priti Patel's conduct and any drafts should now be fully published and the Prime Minister and Home Secretary should come to the House on Monday to face questions on their conduct."

Sir Alex said in a statement: "I recognise that it is for the Prime Minister to make a judgment on whether actions by a minister amount to a breach of the ministerial code.

"But I feel that it is right that I should now resign from my position as the Prime Minister's independent adviser on the code."

Sir Alex said Ms Patel's frustrations had seen her shout and swear in some instances.

In his published advice, he said: "She is action-orientated and can be direct.

"The Home Secretary has also become - justifiably in many instances - frustrated by the Home Office leadership's lack of responsiveness and the lack of support she felt in DfID (the now defunct Department for International Development) three years ago.

"The evidence is that this has manifested itself in forceful expression, including some occasions of shouting and swearing.

"This may not be done intentionally to cause upset, but that has been the effect on some individuals."

He added: "My advice is that the Home Secretary has not consistently met the high standards required by the Ministerial Code of treating her civil servants with consideration and respect.

"Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals.

"To that extent her behaviour has been in breach of the Ministerial Code, even if unintentionally."

The Cabinet Office launched an inquiry into Ms Patel's behaviour after Sir Philip Rutnam, the most senior Home Office Civil Servant, quit his job in February.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan told LBC that much of Westminster reflects hit BBC political drama The Thick of It, where "aggressive, shouty, sweary" powerful figures are the norm.

He said: "There appears to be a particular culture that's prevalent now in politics, and I know from personal experience that there is this culture of machoism and too many alpha-male and alpha-females around.

"I think that's got to change, and unless we change that culture don't be surprised if 'normal people' don't want to get involved in politics."

Sir Philip is currently suing for unfair dismissal and claims Ms Patel "created fear" in the department.

Ms Patel has always denied the allegations, but a source said the report concluded: "The home secretary had not met the requirements of the ministerial code to treat civil servants with consideration and respect".

Responding to the findings on Priti Patel, Jess Phillips, the Labour MP and shadow minister for domestic violence, tweeted: "What an utter disgrace.

"While the Government asks the entire country to stick to the rules it also cannot in good faith say that rules don't apply to them.

"Any Tory seeking to defend this is utterly without reason or comprehension.

"In all my years of working with those who have suffered at the hands of those who use power to control and bully people I can tell you that when people get away with it it makes their behaviour worse where you might think it made them cautious, it doesn't."

Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Home Office, said relationships between officials and ministers at the department had "improved considerably" but admitted the report into the Home Secretary's conduct made for "difficult reading".

He said: "Sir Alex Allan's findings make difficult reading, including for the Civil Service.

"The Home Secretary and I are committed to working together to improve the Home Office and build the strongest possible partnership between ministers and officials based on support, candour, safety to challenge, mutual respect and professionalism.

"Relationships between ministers and officials have improved considerably.

"Day in, day out Home Office staff work tirelessly to keep the public safe, cut crime, and improve our immigration and asylum system, and we are determined that they should do so in a supportive environment that respects their wellbeing."