While Priti Patel has broken many glass ceilings – becoming the first Indian-origin and first Hindu to become the Home Secretary of the UK – the recent precedents she has set are nothing to be proud of. Not only has she been found guilty of bullying civil servants by an independent inquiry, but she has not taken the morally right step and resigned. Her boss, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also ripped up the rulebook and broken precedent by not sacking her.
Instead it was Sir Alex Allan, the prime minister’s adviser on ministerial standards who conducted the inquiry and concluded that Patel had broken the ministerial code across three government departments. He quit his post when Johnson contradicted his report by vigorously defending Patel and allowing her to remain in her position as home secretary. This goes against the grain of political ethics as has been practiced in the UK till now.
A Cabinet Office inquiry had been launched in March this year when Permanent Secretary Sir Philip Rutnam, the senior-most bureaucrat in the Home Office, resigned accusing Patel of “shouting”, “swearing” and “belittling” colleagues. The 59-year-old Rutnam, who quit after 33 years of service, said Patel “created fear” in the department and told him that he was “unable to do his job”, “undeserving of his pension” and compared him to Eeyore, the stupid donkey in the children’s classic Winnie the Pooh. A resignation of this sort by a top bureaucrat is unprecedented in the history of the British civil service.
Rather than removing Patel, which is the norm when ministers break the code, Johnson urged Tory colleagues in a WhatsApp message to “form a square around the Prittster”. Patel, 48, issued a grovelling apology saying she was “sorry that my behavior has upset people and I have never intentionally set out to upset anyone.”
The Home Secretary had been accused of bullying earlier too. In 2015, when Patel was the Minister of State for Employment in the Department for Work and Pensions, an employee lodged a formal complaint of bullying, harassment and discrimination on the grounds of race and disability against her. Two years later, the complainant was given £25,000 as compensation to stop any further legal claims.
Patel is also a repeat offender when it comes to breaking the ministerial code and last time lost her job as it was a different boss. In 2017, she was forced to step down as International Development Minister when Theresa May was the Prime Minister. On a ‘private holiday’ to Israel, Patel held around 14 unofficial meetings with Israeli ministers, business people and a senior lobbyist without informing the Foreign Office or the Prime Minister. When the news broke, Patel suffered the ignominy of being summoned back from an official trip to Uganda and Ethiopia and being told to resign immediately by Theresa May.
Patel, a firm Eurosceptic, has been a great favourite of Johnson because of her loyalty to him from the time of the Brexit referendum in 2015 and hence he has made excuses for her by arguing that the bullying was “unintentional”.
Ironically, Patel, the daughter of immigrant parents from Gujarat, is on the far right of the right-wing Conservative party, and is planning on bringing in immigration policies that may include shipping off UK asylum seekers to migrant centres on south Atlantic islands.
Johnson’s decision to stand by Patel has infuriated opposition MPs and senior civil servants. “If I were prime minister, the home secretary would have been removed from her job,” said Sir Keir Starmer, a Labour Party leader. “It’s hard to imagine another workplace in the UK where this behaviour would be condoned by those at the top,” he added.
The Prime Minister has also been accused of double standards, particularly as Johnson had set out as recently as 2019 when he took office that “there must be no bullying or harassment” in the foreword to the ministerial code. “In the first test of his commitment to these words, he has transparently chosen partisan political interest over the interests of the victims of the home secretary’s behaviour,” pointed out Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union for senior civil servants.
Though, this time, Patel has held on to her position by the skin of her teeth, she now has to be extremely careful not to put a foot wrong. She has already had two strikes. A third one may well be the end of her political career.