The risks of sticking with Priti
In a display of apparent loyalty, Conservative MPs and Ministers have been Tweeting their backing for Priti Patel.
“She’s hard working, determined and has been very kind to many,” wrote Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Priti is a strong leader & rightly demanding but also kind, thoughtful & dedicated to public service,” tweeted the Security Minister, James Brokenshire.
There’ve been countless other, similar, comments since reports emerged on Thursday of the findings of a Cabinet Office inquiry into allegations against Patel of bullying.
A summary of the Inquiry findings has now been published. It found 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," it said, in a conclusion that would spell the end of most Ministerial careers.
The show of support by MPs no doubt reflects the Home Secretary’s popularity among some of her colleagues but also suggests there’ve been “instructions...from the whips office”, as the former Justice Secretary, David Gauke, pointedly put it.
I’ve no reason to doubt the descriptions of Patel’s character provided by Brokenshire, Tugendhat and the rest. My own one-on-one experience is limited to two occasions, once, in the early 2000s when she was working in public affairs, and earlier this year at a Home Office media function just before lockdown. Both times she was polite, friendly but also forthright in her views. Nothing wrong with that.
But while such character references can be important in some circumstances, they are largely irrelevant to the issues the Cabinet Office inquiry had to consider.
The Inquiry examined allegations about Patel’s behaviour towards officials at three government departments. It wasn’t about how she treated fellow ministers or MPs, journalists or members of the public. It was about how she dealt with staff who were working FOR her and in workplaces where she was in charge.
Those who have offered the Home Secretary their support must surely be able to understand that difference and appreciate there can be many different sides to an individual’s character and behaviour, according to the situation they’re in, the power they have and the pressure they’re under.
Sir Alex Allen, the Prime Minister's Independent Adviser, found that Patel had broken the Ministerial Code. Boris Johnson, however, who is the ultimate arbiter on such matters, disagreed and is said to be "reassured that the Home Secretary is sorry for inadvertently upsetting those with whom she was working". Sir Alex has resigned.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Johnson came to the decision that the Code had not been broken because he knew that to do otherwise would have meant requiring Patel to resign. That is the convention for ministers who break the Code. Her closeness to the PM, her abilities as a Cabinet Minister, her standing among Conservative supporters and backbenchers should not have come into it, but undoubtedly did.
In December 2017, Damian Green was dismissed after an Inquiry found that he’d breached the Ministerial Code, having made “inaccurate and misleading” statements about claims pornography was found on his work computer. At the time Green was, in effect, Deputy Prime Minister to Theresa May; he was one of her oldest political friends and closest allies, well-liked and respected in the Party. It must have been a massive wrench for May to sack him, but she did.
Johnson has not shown the same mettle. His strategy is high risk.
He should have considered what happened in the months after he refused to fire Dominic Cummings over alleged breaches of lockdown rules. The story about the Chief Adviser's trip to County Durham and Barnard Castle never went away, eroding public trust and confidence in the Government.
The Prime Minister must surely also be aware that having decided to “stick” with Priti Patel, as he'd previously pledged to do, there are likely to be further uncomfortable revelations to come over the next 12 months, as a claim for unfair (constructive) dismissal brought by Sir Philip Rutnam, the former Home Office Permanent Secretary, moves closer to an Employment Tribunal hearing. The process will involve disclosure of legal documents and preliminary hearings, the details of which may enter the public domain before the full hearing.
It won’t make for pretty reading.