Victim of misogyny or just a bully with a vicious tongue? As Home Secretary Priti Patel is mired in ‘bullying’ allegations, GUY ADAMS explains how the messy political row exposes a deep fault-line between Boris Johnson’s Government and the civil service
Priti Patel was once asked whether she thought she was widely liked by the civil servants who worked for her. ‘Probably not,’ she replied. ‘But you don’t go to work to be liked and be popular. You go to work to be effective and to change things.’
Given recent events, that attitude is probably for the best. Because one thing few people dispute is that the Home Secretary seems to be almost universally disliked in Whitehall.
In this rarefied world, Patel is widely regarded a ‘vicious’ bully with reputation for ‘rude and dismissive’ behaviour when she fails to get her own way. Sometimes, she has been known to shout or even – shock, horror! – swear at staff.
When she was sacked from the Department for International Development in 2017, civil servants there reportedly responded with an impromptu rendition of Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead!
Priti Patel was once asked whether she thought she was widely liked by the civil servants who worked for her, writes Guy Adams
In one deeply hostile briefing this week, she was dubbed a ‘vile, pushy, horrid thicko’. Defenders insist that she’s the victim of a misogynistic vendetta orchestrated by aloof and snobbish Oxbridge mandarins who dislike taking orders from a sharp-elbowed newsagent’s daughter from deepest Essex.
Wherever the truth lies – and a formal inquiry will attempt to shed some light on this question – this increasingly messy political row exposes a deeper fault-line between Boris Johnson’s newly elected administration and the civil service.
‘Put simply, this is the first time for decades that we’ve had a radical Government, which boasts a strong majority,’ is how one Whitehall insider puts it.
‘Mandarins have grown used to coalition, or minority, administrations, where ministers ask civil servants what might be achieved and proceed accordingly.
‘Now they have to deal with an emboldened Government which has a clear agenda, is determined to pursue it, so is telling civil servants what to do.’
Many Tories believe that to sack Patel now would send a clear signal that an unelected bureaucracy, rather than Boris Johnson’s Government, is what really controls Britain’s levers of power.
‘In effect it would mean surrendering to what Dominic Cummings and others call the ‘blob’,’ says one senior party source. ‘That’s why it can’t and must not be allowed to happen.’
Against this backdrop, simmering tensions about what one might call Patel’s ‘bedside manner’ were made public on Saturday with the resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam, the ministry’s permanent secretary, who accused her of orchestrating a ‘vicious’ campaign against him.
In a dramatic press conference, Sir Philip accused the 47-year-old mother-of -one of not only briefing against him but ‘shouting and swearing’ at staff, ‘belittling people’, and ‘making unreasonable and repeated demands’.
He said Patel had ‘created fear’ and ‘needed some bravery to call out’, and revealed that he intends to sue the Government for constructive dismissal.
The fallout has seen similarly ugly claims aired regarding two of her other ministerial spells: at both the Department for Work and Pensions, where she was a junior minister for 14 months in 2015-16, and DfID, which she ran from July 2016 to November 2017.
At the DWP, it has emerged that a senior aide took an overdose having lost her job shortly after Patel arrived. The woman complained of being bullied and harassed, and was paid £25,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
According to legal correspondence leaked to the BBC, the former civil servant claimed that some of the abuse she suffered came directly from Patel, who in one incident shouted at her to ‘Get lost’ and ‘Get out of my face’.
Sources close to Patel say the claim is ‘ludicrous’, that the woman only worked for her for a fortnight and was ‘already in the process of quitting’ when she took over as employment minister.
Pictured: Home Secretary Priti Patel
At DfID, two permanent secretaries were allegedly informed of bullying complaints against Patel during her tenure, while an aide was signed off with depression.
A former official in the department has told The Times that Patel ‘would come out [of] office and say, ‘Why is everyone so f****** useless’.’
Another claimed: ‘She was reviled for her rudeness and insensitivity. She could not have been more hated for the way she treated people. She was just vile.’
According to a third, ‘while the word ‘bullying’ is used, with her it’s not really personal, as if she took a dislike to certain people, it was her typical manner. One minute she would come across as rude or ungrateful, and another she would be being dismissive or hostile in the face of advice.’
The problem with these and many other complaints is they are short on detail and context.
Without knowing what prompted individual incidents, it’s impossible to properly judge whether the bullying allegations are justified.
‘Priti is a tough cookie, and to be frank doesn’t mind being called a demanding boss because she is,’ says a friend who spoke with her this week. ‘She is forceful and pushy, and is the first to admit that she can be abrasive.
Part of that comes from her parents, who came to the UK from Uganda with nothing and worked 18-hour days to build up a small chain of newsagents.
Her view is that staff in the Home Office need to display similar gumption. They need to be told to pull their socks up because… it’s an organisation which is unfit for purpose.’
Another source says: ‘If you go into a failing department, which is what the Home Office is, at some point you will need to tell people that they are failing. But there are ways of doing that, and the civil service is not used to being told something robustly. It’s a world where people never fail. They just get moved sideways.’
A pressing example of the ways in which Home Office civil servants work to frustrate their elected masters was aired on Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, where former immigration minister Damian Green told how mandarins who worked for him created a secret unit to write a new immigration Bill, against his specific instructions.
‘[The unit] was kept in existence for about nine months,’ he recalled
On the other side, rumours doing the rounds in Whitehall suggest that hostile Home Office staff originally angered Patel by failing to show her full briefing documents because they feared she would misunderstand or misinterpret their contents.
In a dramatic press conference, Sir Philip Rutnam (pictured) accused the 47-year-old mother-of -one of not only briefing against him but ‘shouting and swearing’ at staff, ‘belittling people’, and ‘making unreasonable and repeated demands’
‘She is not up to the job and does not know what she’s doing,’ one official told the Mail. ‘She refuses to listen to civil servants and instead only listens to special advisers who are young, inexperienced appointees. In interviews, unless she has a script to follow, it always ends in tears.’
By way of an example, the source cited Patel’s recent claim that the UK’s 8.5million ‘economically inactive’ citizens who can do jobs currently filled by EU nationals when free movement ends.
‘These 8.5million include students aged between 16 and 18, along with pensioners and people who are long-term sick. How can they take on low-skilled jobs? It beggars belief.’ The Whitehall source also highlighted a recent broadcast interview in which Patel confused ‘terrorism’ and ‘counter terrorism’ resulting in a nonsensical pledge to be ‘tough on counter terrorism’.
Staff who attempt to prevent her making such errors are accused of seeking to frustrate the Government’s agenda, the source complained, when in fact they are merely attempting to help.
‘The Home Office faces huge challenges, not least redesigning the entire immigration system by the end of the year. Up to now, Priti has basically been going into meetings shouting ‘mandate mandate mandate’, and her civil servants have been replying ‘reality reality reality’ and nothing is being achieved.’
Patel’s ultimate fate rests with Boris Johnson, who will decide on her future once Sir Alex Allan, the Cabinet Office’s inquisitor general, completes an investigation into the complaints against her.
It will explore whether she breached the ministerial code which states that ministers should ‘treat all those with whom they come into contact with consideration and respect’.
Given this fact, it was significant that the Prime Minister invited her to sit next to him in Parliament yesterday. A signal, perhaps, that a no-holds-barred fight with the civil service is something No 10 is quietly spoiling for.
PM declares full confidence in embattled Home Secretary as ANOTHER bullying claim emerges and inquiry looms
By Jason Groves and Claire Ellicott for the Daily Mail
Boris Johnson vowed to ‘stick by’ Priti Patel over bullying allegations yesterday even as a fresh claim emerged that she threw a folder at an official during a row.
The Prime Minister told MPs he had full confidence in the embattled Home Secretary despite launching a Cabinet Office inquiry this week into claims that she bullied staff.
But his vote of confidence came as a Whitehall source told the Mail that Mrs Patel had thrown a folder at an official, hitting him in the face during a meeting in 2016. The fresh claim, which was denied by allies of Mrs Patel last night, dates from her time as employment minister.
Boris Johnson vowed to ‘stick by’ Priti Patel (pictured together) over bullying allegations yesterday even as a fresh claim emerged that she threw a folder at an official during a row
A Whitehall source said: ‘She was being briefed by officials for an event and there was a page missing and she got annoyed. At the end of the briefing, she threw the folder at him and hit him in the face.
‘It was so aggressive. She didn’t apologise. It was just like when Alex Ferguson chucked the boot at Beckham.’ A spokesman for Mrs Patel said the claim was ‘categorically false’.
Former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who was Mrs Patel’s boss at the time, also denied the claim, saying: ‘If someone threw a file at you, you would report it, wouldn’t you? There wasn’t a complaint.’ But the allegation is the latest in a series of bullying claims levelled against the Home Secretary in recent days – all of which she has denied.
In a bombshell resignation statement at the weekend, the Home Office’s former top civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam accused Mrs Patel of ‘shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands’.
Sir Philip, who branded Mrs Patel a liar and a bully, is now suing the Government for constructive dismissal.
An official at the Department for Work and Pensions is reported to have received a £25,000 payout after filing a formal complaint against her. According to legal documents seen by the BBC the woman took an overdose of prescription medicines following the alleged bullying in 2015.
Sir Philip, who branded Mrs Patel a liar and a bully, is now suing the Government for constructive dismissal
Mrs Patel has also been accused of bullying her private secretary during her time as International Development Secretary. A senior official at the Department for International Development has claimed there was a ‘tsunami’ of allegations of abuse by officials in her private office.
One former senior figure in the department told the Mail yesterday that she had ‘harassed’ her private secretary to the point where he was eventually signed off sick with a stress-related condition and asked for a transfer to another department.
But, in a sign of the difficulty the Cabinet Office is likely to face in investigating the claims against Mrs Patel, another former DfID official flatly denied the claim she had bullied her private secretary.
The source said: ‘Priti wanted to get a new private secretary, which is not uncommon for a new minister. It was handled a bit awkwardly but it all ended amicably. The claim she was bullying him is just not true and is being put about maliciously.’
Now a ‘thrown folder’ adds to the accusations
- The most senior official at the Home Office, Sir Philip Rutnam, resigned, accusing her of ‘bullying’ and ‘belittling’ staff while Home Secretary. Several are said to have been moved on as a result of clashing with her, according to The Times.
- Mrs Patel allegedly bullied a senior civil servant out of his job while in charge of the Department for International Development during 2016-17. He signed off with a stress-related illness, it was reported.
- Two permanent secretaries in the department were allegedly informed of bullying complaints against her.
- A member of staff at DfID accused Mrs Patel of belittling him by cutting him out of email chains.
- In 2015, a former aide took an overdose after allegedly being bullied by Mrs Patel while at the Department for Work and Pensions. She received a £25,000 payout.
- Mrs Patel has been accused of throwing a folder of papers in a civil servant’s face during a tense meeting at the DWP in 2016.
- She denies all of these claims.
A former minister who served with Mrs Patel urged the Prime Minister to sack her.
The minister said: ‘There hasn’t been a single government department in which she has worked where there haven’t been complaints about her conduct, whether it was the Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions, DfID or now the Home Office.
‘She is not fit to be a minister and it is a reflection on Boris’s judgment that he ever put her in the Home Office.’
In the Commons yesterday, the Prime Minister gave Mrs Patel his full backing.
Speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions, with Mrs Patel sat alongside him, he said: ‘The Home Secretary is doing an outstanding job – delivering change, putting police on the streets, cutting crime and delivering a new immigration system – and I’m sticking by her.’
Labour called for an independent inquiry into Mrs Patel’s conduct, and said it had received fresh allegations against her from officials who served with her various government departments.
Jeremy Corbyn said Mr Johnson had ‘no shame in defending bullying’ in his government as he called for an ‘independent’ investigation. But Downing Street insisted that the Cabinet Office inquiry, which will report to Mr Johnson, would be ‘robust’ and would be able to look at all allegations made against Mrs Patel.
It is thought that Mrs Patel will be interviewed by senior officials about the claims in the coming days.
Her allies have claimed that ‘dark forces’ are trying to remove her. Mr Duncan Smith said disgruntled officials were ‘in league’ with each other and elements of the media as part of an effort to damage the Government.
‘Some of the civil service are using Priti Patel to take on the Government,’ he said. ‘They’re using Priti to weaken Downing Street’s resolve. If Downing Street backs down, some in the civil service will say they have won, and no one will say boo to them again. It’s complete nonsense from start to end. I’ve worked with her and yes, she’s tough, she’s strident. But she’s trying to get a job done.’
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