Dominic Raab appears to be trying to turn his departure into the latest front in the ongoing culture war

21 April 2023, 13:10

Dominic Raab appears to be trying to turn his departure into the latest front in the ongoing culture war, writes Ben Kentish
Dominic Raab appears to be trying to turn his departure into the latest front in the ongoing culture war, writes Ben Kentish. Picture: Global

By StephenRigley

Dominic Raab’s resignation letter is like no other I have ever seen.

While ministers resigning from government often hint at their dissatisfaction or frustration at having to do so, there is nothing remotely subtle about Raab’s explosive exit. Instead, in a furious attack on his detractors, he makes abundantly clear that he thinks he should not be being forced to quit as Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister.

According to Mr Raab, the conclusions of the report by Adam Tolley KC into his behaviour following numerous allegations of bullying are “flawed and set a dangerous precedent for the conduct of good government”. He continues by insisting that his behaviour towards officials was not merely appropriate, but also beneficial to the running of the country or, as he puts it, “what the public expects of Ministers working on their behalf”.

His accusers have claimed that Mr Raab “put the fear of God” into colleagues, made civil servants cry and was guilty of, in the words of one, “coercive behaviour” and “the worst behaviour I’ve ever seen”. But in Mr Raab’s interpretation of events, he is the good guy, simply doing his utmost to improve standards in government in the face of resistance from obstructive officials.

Mr Raab points out that Mr Tolley’s inquiry found he had never “sworn or shouted at anyone, let along thrown anything or otherwise physically assaulted anyone”. Well, that’s something.

And even his apology – “I’m genuinely sorry for any unintended stress or offence that any officials felt as a result of the pace, standards and challenge that I brought to the Ministry of Justice”– could be translated as: “I’m sorry they couldn’t cope with me being too good at my job.” Or, in the language of younger generations, sorry not sorry.

His resignation letter is an attack on what he seems to be trying to depict as a snowflake civil service culture that won’t allow a bit of old-fashioned robustness and cries foul at the first sign of high standards being demanded. That might be enough to convince some of his parliamentary colleagues that he has been unfairly treated. Indeed, one was already tweeting as such before having even seen the report into Mr Raab’s behaviour.

The outgoing Deputy PM appears to be trying to turn his departure into the latest front in the ongoing culture war. He will be well aware that, among many of his colleagues and some parts of the media, any suggestion that civil servants are the ones really at fault will likely be given a warm reception. Mr Raab is effectively suggesting that he is simply latest martyr to sacrificed on the altar of Whitehall wokery.

The problem with this argument is that two formal complaints against him were upheld – not by a questionable internal civil service process but by a leading employment lawyer. Mr Tolley can hardly be depicted as some overzealous HR official, or another part of the Whitehall “blob” that some Tory MPs love to criticise. He is a leading barrister who has made a successful career out of what does and doesn’t constitute acceptable behaviour in the workplace. Reading his report, Mr Tolley is at times very sympathetic to Mr Raab. He defends much of his behaviour, dismisses many of the criticisms levelled at time him - and yet still concludes that Mr Raab was at times guilty of behaviour that was “intimidating”, “insulting” and “punitive”.

Questions will also be asked about the timing of the resignation. Mr Raab says he feels “duty bound to accept the outcome of the inquiry”. Why, many will ask, did it take him the best part of a day to offer his resignation? Or was it the case that Rishi Sunak had been reluctant to accept it? Given the damning conclusions of Tolley’s inquiry, it is difficult to see how anyone in government thought Mr Raab could keep his job.

But the part of Mr Raab’s letter that will no doubt get most attention is his suggestion that his exit from government “has set a dangerous precedent” and will “encourage spurious complaints against Ministers and have a chilling effect on those driving change on behalf of your government”.

It is an incredible claim. Firstly, Mr Tolley concluded that some of claims were legitimate, he defends all of the civil servants involved (including praising their resilience) and is clear that he believes Mr Raab at times behaved inappropriately. Secondly, very few will believe that the problem in Westminster is that too many politicians are found guilty of bullying as compared to too few.  The truth is that for all Mr Raab’s apparent concerns about the floodgates now opening, there has long been a culture of bullying in SW1 that allows those responsible to, on most occasions, get away with it.

For every case that gets reported, more don’t. For every bully who is held to account for their actions, more are not.

This is not about an occasional angry word or moment of ire. It is about a pattern of behaviour by some people who often have no formal training in management or leadership, and whose positions of power often convince them that they have the right to treat junior staff in a way that others would consider entirely unacceptable.

That it took years for concerns about Mr Raab’s behaviour to come to light and be investigated says more than the fact that he has now been held to account.

While Mr Raab may be concerned that the floodgates of bullying allegations may have now been opened, any increase in scrutiny of some politicians’ treatment of more junior staff is surely not to be something to lamented but something to be welcomed as a step that has been needed for a long, long time.