This is from my ConservativeHome column, published on Friday.
Dominic Cummings took great pleasure in fighting the ‘Education Blob’ when he was one of Michael Gove’s SPADs at the Department of Education some years ago. That fight is now being reprised with the whole of the civil service, following the resignation of Home Office Permanent Secretary Sir Philip Rutnam over alleged bullying by Priti Patel.
The wagons are circling on both sides and pot shots are being taken through anonymous briefings every day. If you’re on the left, you side with the poor beleaguered civil servants. If you’re on the right you stand by Priti Patel without reservation or nuance. You see her as a beacon for reform and taking on the Home Office establishment over borders and immigration.
Priti Patel is delightful company in private. Her eyes sparkle, she has a waspish sense of humour and you can’t quite imagine she’s capable of bullying. However, anonymous briefings, presumably from within the civil service, have detailed several examples of her alleged ‘robustness’ with civil servants. Trouble is, they vary in accuracy.
I have no idea whether Priti Patel is wholly guilty or even partly guilty of what she is accused. And nor do you. That’s why in theory everyone should leave it to the inquiry to find the truth. But let’s say she did, on occasion, shout, or lose her temper. Does that constitute ‘bullying’ in the traditional sense? The definition of the word bully is to “seek to harm, intimidate, or coerce (someone perceived as vulnerable).” Shouting at a Permanent Secretary, I would venture to suggest, does not fit the definition, unless you think a Permanent Secretary is somehow vulnerable. It may be unseemly, it may not be the way to get your own way, but bullying it is surely not. Persistent derision of a junior member of staff is something very different, but the allegation that has been raised from her time at the DWP seems to be falling apart under scrutiny.
Sir Philip, in his resignation statement to camera, decried the anonymous briefings against him by “friends of Priti”. He appears to ignore those same anonymous briefings that are being made on his behalf, and also did so in the days leading up to his resignation. He says he knew nothing about them. To coin a phrase, I do not believe him.
Sir Philip is a classic Sir Humphrey. His period as Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport was so disastrous that he was promoted. His performance at the Home Office has been lamentable, as Amber Rudd could certainly testify to – and in the employment tribunal, she may well have to. He had been at the Home Office for a year when the Windrush scandal broke, but professed not to be an expert on the Immigration system, and let Amber Rudd swing in the wind. Even when it became clear that she had been utterly failed by Home Office civil servants, Sir Philip refused to take any responsibility. All that was missing in his resignation statement was the bowler hat.
In saying all this, I profess to having no clue as to the substance of the bullying allegations either in the Home Office, or at Dfid. I suggest we let the inquiry do its job and then form a judgement when it has reported. Perhaps we should all think about our reactions to the Bercow bullying allegations. The Left rallied to his defence, and took the view ‘nothing to see, move on’. The right was all too willing to believe very allegation made against him. The roles are now being reversed. You have the ridiculous sight of people like Diane Abbott railing against Priti Patel when they gave John Bercow a free pass. Diane said it was ridiculous to think a General, like Sir David Leakey, could be bullied by a man of small stature like John Bercow. Strangely she doesn’t apply the same logic to the 5’4 inch Priti Patel. Odd, that.