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PM ‘pressured advisor to tone down report on Priti Patel bullying to make findings more palatable’

Boris Johnson ‘pressured adviser to tone down Priti Patel bullying report to make findings more palatable’ – as PM urges Tory MPs to ‘form a square around the Pritster’ after her apology

  • Sir Alex Allan quit when PM overruled his conclusion Home Sec breached rules
  • Mr Johnson has stood by her, urging MPs to ‘form a square around the Pritster’ 
  • Ms Patel yesterday offered an ‘unreserved, fulsome apology’ for her behaviour

Boris Johnson is facing allegations that he pressured his standards advisor to water down his report on the Home Secretary’s bullying of staff as he urged Tory MPs to ‘form a square around the Pritster’. 

Downing Street did not deny claims Mr Johnson had tried and failed to convince Sir Alex Allan to tone down his conclusion that Priti Patel’s behaviour amounted to bullying as he found instances of shouting and swearing at staff.  

The advisor quit on Friday when the Prime Minister overruled his conclusion that Ms Patel breached the ministerial code and stood by his Conservative colleague, calling on others within the party to do the same. 

But a Whitehall source told the BBC that Sir Alex resisted pressure to make the findings more ‘palatable’. 

This morning, Sir David Normington, former Home Office permanent secretary and former first civil service commissioner, told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme he thought Mr Johnson’s lack of action suggested he wasn’t willing to protect victims and ‘stand up for high standards in public life’.

Boris Johnson is facing allegations that he pressured his standards advisor to water down his report on Priti Patel's bullying of staff to make the findings more 'palatable'

Boris Johnson is facing allegations that he pressured his standards advisor to water down his report on Priti Patel's bullying of staff to make the findings more 'palatable'

Boris Johnson is facing allegations that he pressured his standards advisor to water down his report on Priti Patel’s bullying of staff to make the findings more ‘palatable’

Downing Street did not deny claims Mr Johnson had tried and failed to convince Sir Alex Allan, pictured, to tone down his conclusion that the Home Secretary's behaviour amounted to bullying as he found instances of shouting and swearing at staff

Downing Street did not deny claims Mr Johnson had tried and failed to convince Sir Alex Allan, pictured, to tone down his conclusion that the Home Secretary's behaviour amounted to bullying as he found instances of shouting and swearing at staff

Downing Street did not deny claims Mr Johnson had tried and failed to convince Sir Alex Allan, pictured, to tone down his conclusion that the Home Secretary’s behaviour amounted to bullying as he found instances of shouting and swearing at staff

He said: ‘It seems to me there needs to be a recognition from her and the PM that she was found to have bullied staff, possibly in three departments, not just the Home Office. That is completely unacceptable.

‘Although it was good she apologised, it wasn’t an apology for bullying, there has been no acknowledgement from her or the PM that she bullied. In fact, the PM has simply put aside the findings of the report and the independent advisor Alex Allen that she is a bully. You shouldn’t have bullies in government.

Who said what? 

Priti Patel: ‘I am sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people. It has never been my intention to cause upset to anyone. I am very grateful for the hard work of thousands of civil servants who help to deliver the Government’s agenda.

‘I care deeply about delivering on the commitments we have made to the people of this country and I acknowledge that I am direct and have at times got frustrated.

‘I would like to thank the Prime Minister for his support. The Permanent Secretary and I are working closely together to deliver on the vital job the Home Office has to do for the country.’

Sir Alex Allan: ‘I recognise that it is for the Prime Minister to make a judgement on whether actions by a Minister amount to a breach of the Ministerial Code. 

‘But I feel that it is right that I should now resign from my position as the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on the Code.’ 

Home Office Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft: ‘Sir Alex Allan’s findings make difficult reading, including for the Civil Service.

‘The Home Secretary and I are committed to working together to improve the Home Office and build the strongest possible partnership between Ministers and officials based on support, candour, safety to challenge, mutual respect and professionalism. Relationships between Ministers and officials have improved considerably.

Allegra Stratton, the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary:  ‘The Prime Minister does personally take these allegations exceedingly seriously.

‘He loathes bullying. He takes it very seriously and recognises that it is very difficult for people to come forward and raise concerns. It is a brave thing to do. He knows that.

‘He did say that he would not tolerate bullying. He hasn’t tolerated bullying. It is not his belief that Priti Patel is a bully.’ 

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‘I don’t think she recognises even now that she has bullied and more important the PM has ignored and set aside a report that said she was a bully.

‘We have to put ourselves in the position of the bullied, no one has spoken up for them, some of them are junior staff who will be sitting there today thinking their voice is not being heard and that they can’t rely on the PM to stand up for them.

‘The facts are very clear, we have a report and Alex Allan, the independent advisor, has said she is a bully and has broken the ministerial code and in all other circumstances in the past the PM would then have taken action but instead he’s put that aside.

‘That’s what’s so concerning about this: the system depends on the PM standing up for standards in public life and taking action when his or her ministers breach those standards. For the first time as far as I can remember we have a PM who doesn’t seem willing to stand up for high standards in public life.

‘I’m sure there was a conversation between the PM and Allan but the important thing for all of us to understand is that Allan did not change his report, he felt absolutely confident with his findings and those findings were that the code had been broken.’

Ex-minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan told the programme in response: ‘Knowing Priti, I would say if there was someone there she would have been the first person to say ‘for goodness sake, come in for a coffee’. She would absolutely be the first to do that.

‘Being secretary of state is a pretty busy world, we’re very protected by our private offices. I was always very clear with my wonderful private office and my private secretary that anybody should feel free to come and talk to me about anything, mostly because it’s very difficult to see in to the administrative machinery of your department, that’s not where a secretary of state sits.’  

Former home secretary Ken Clarke has said sometimes a minister has to be ‘robust’ with civil servants, but he condemned any form of bullying.

‘You don’t shout at them or have rows with them, but you’ve got to hold your ground – you take their advice, you discuss it with them properly,’ he said during a Times Radio interview.

‘But you do have to realise that in the end you make the decisions and the department does deliver what you have decided furthers the Government’s policy.

‘Junior officials, occasionally they will annoy you but in every walk of life the boss should not start bullying the younger, newer people who work for him or her.’ 

Lord Clarke described Home Office civil servants as ‘resistant to change’ in a discussion about the Priti Patel bullying investigation.

‘I felt they were a bit inclined to say ‘well that’s not quite the way we do things here’,’ he told Times Radio. Ken Clarke was Conservative home secretary from 1992 to 1993 before he became chancellor.

‘If they agreed with what you wanted them to do, they were doing it perfectly efficiently and quickly. Where they didn’t agree, you did have to check that actually they were getting it on with anyway,’ he added.

‘Getting your way and making some progress on your policies was quite difficult sometimes, but apart from that the ability of people was very high.’

He blamed the media for the fact ‘far too many’ members of the public now think politicians are corrupt. ‘That’s completely, grotesquely untrue – the politicians and civil servants are overwhelmingly people of the highest motivation, doing things for the right reasons,’ he said. 

Offering what she described as an 'unreserved, fulsome apology', Ms Patel seized on Sir Alex's finding that she received no feedback on the impact of her behaviour

Offering what she described as an 'unreserved, fulsome apology', Ms Patel seized on Sir Alex's finding that she received no feedback on the impact of her behaviour

Offering what she described as an ‘unreserved, fulsome apology’, Ms Patel seized on Sir Alex’s finding that she received no feedback on the impact of her behaviour

Meanwhile, Douglas Ross  told Times Radio that it was up to Mr Johnson whether or not to sack his Home Secretary.

Patel accused of being ‘a liar and a bully’ by senior civil servant

Priti Patel was accused of abusive behavior to a series of civil servants across three departments she worked at in Government. 

The probe was sparked by the resignation in February of Sir Philip Rutnam as permanent secretary in the Home Office.

It sparked a furious row, with Sir Philip, branding Ms Patel a liar and a bully.

In a bombshell resignation statement, which he read live on television, he accused Miss Patel, 47, of ‘shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands’.

He accused Ms Patel of orchestrating a ‘vicious’ campaign against him, of lying about her involvement in it and of creating a climate of fear in her department. 

It prompted an avalanche of claims against Boris Johnson’s highest ranking female minister, all of which she denies.

Claims against Ms Patel include the allegation she ‘dressed down’ staff in front of their colleagues and asked: ‘Why is everyone so f***ing useless?’ 

Sir Philip is now taking the Home Secretary and her department to an employment tribunal next year accusing her of unfair dismissal and claiming he should have been protected as a whistleblower.

He was one of the most senior civil servants in Whitehall, having joined the Home Office as permanent secretary – the top civil servant role in each department – in April 2017 having previously done the same job at the Department for Transport for five years. 

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But the leader of the Scottish Conservatives said it would be good for people to be able to see reports into bullying allegations.

‘That’s a decision for the Prime Minister, he has reviewed the whole report and the Home Secretary has apologised,’ Mr Ross said.

‘But ultimately it is the choice for the Prime Minister who sits at his Cabinet table.

‘I actually think there’s an argument we do see the full detail of these reports.’   

Offering what she described as an ‘unreserved, fulsome apology’, Ms Patel seized on Sir Alex’s finding that she received no feedback on the impact of her behaviour.

But Sir Philip Rutnam, who quit as the Home Office’s permanent secretary after accusing Ms Patel of a ‘vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign’ against him, contested this.

He said she was advised not to shout and swear at staff the month after her appointment in 2019 and that he told her to treat staff with respect ‘on a number of further occasions’.

Sir Philip also said he was not interviewed for the inquiry despite him having launched a constructive dismissal claim at an employment tribunal.

Meanwhile, the Times reported two unnamed senior Whitehall officials saying that the Prime Minister tried and failed to get Sir Alex to tone down his report to find there was no clear evidence of bullying.

Downing Street did not deny the report, with a No 10 spokesman instead saying: ‘As you would expect, the Prime Minister spoke to Sir Alex Allan to further his understanding of the report.

‘Sir Alex’s conclusions are entirely his own.’ 

Normally ministers are expected to resign if they breach the code but the Prime Minister makes the final decision and deemed it not a resigning matter.

But in the wake of Sir Alex’s resignation, Lord Evans of Weardale, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, branded it ‘deeply concerning’.   

In a WhatsApp message to MPs after the announcement yesterday Mr Johnson said it was ‘time to form a square around the Pritster’ and many MPs have been defending her record in the face of growing anger.

Sir Alex said Ms Patel’s frustrations had seen her shout and swear in some instances. In his published advice, he said: ‘She is action-orientated and can be direct.

‘The Home Secretary has also become – justifiably in many instances – frustrated by the Home Office leadership’s lack of responsiveness and the lack of support she felt in DfID (the now defunct Department for International Development) three years ago.

‘The evidence is that this has manifested itself in forceful expression, including some occasions of shouting and swearing.This may not be done intentionally to cause upset, but that has been the effect on some individuals.’  

Alex Allan: former spy boss who once windsurfed down the Thames to work and later was embroiled in ‘assassination’ mystery

Sir Alex Allan is a career civil servant and former intelligence chief who once found himself at the heart of a mystery that led to claims he had been the target of an assassination attempt.

The 69-year-old was chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 2007 to 2011, a role which saw him assessing the work of MI5 and MI6.

He was fit and active and known as a keen runner, sailor and cyclist who once windsurfed down the Thames in a suit to beat a train strike (below).

But in July 2008 Sir Alex, a former Downing Street private secretary to both John Major and Tony Blair, was found unconscious at his West London home.

The JIC chief – also known as a fan of the 60s band the Grateful Dead – lapsed into a coma and was described as ‘very, very seriously ill’. 

Wildlife painter Dominique Salm, who rented his late wife’s art studio in his home, told neighbours he was discovered with ‘blood everywhere’.

Her account added to speculation that Mr Allan may have been targeted by a foreign spy agency.

He was put under police guard in hospital while toxicology tests were carried out at his home.

Speculation focused on whether he had been targeted by terrorists or a hostile foreign government and questions were raised about his personal security.

Mr Allan’s wife, artist Katie Clemson, died of cancer aged 58 in 2007 and he continued to live in what was described as ‘an artist’s enclave’ on the Thames near Hammersmith.

He had also published his personal details on his own website, including his address, telephone number and details of family and friends.

However, Government officials tried to play down the investigation into his collapse, which was overseen by Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorism Command.

No details of the police inquiry’s conclusions were officially released, but Whitehall sources were quoted at the time blaming it on pneumonia and insisted it was ‘non-suspicious’.      

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Sir Alex added: ‘My advice is 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.

‘To that extent her behaviour has been in breach of the Ministerial Code, even if unintentionally.’

But in leaks from his report, Sir Alex laid significant criticism at the door of civil servants who worked with Ms Patel, the MP for Witham in Essex.

‘The Home Office was not as flexible as it could have been in responding to the Home Secretary’s requests and direction’ he wrote.

‘She has legitimately not always felt supported by the department. In addition, no feedback was given to the Home Secretary of the impact of her behaviour, which meant she was unaware of issues that she could have otherwise addressed.’ 

It is understood Sir Alex went on to say that Miss Patel had ‘also become justifiably in many incidences frustrated by the Home Office leadership’s lack of responsiveness and the lack of support she felt’.

He noted that there has been an improvement in the relationship between the Home Secretary and her officials in recent months. The Home Secretary has always denied wrongdoing, and sources close to her last night insisted no formal complaints were ever made.   

Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Home Office, said that relationships between officials and ministers at the department had ‘improved considerably’ but admitted the report into the Home Secretary’s conduct made for ‘difficult reading’. 

The decision to keep her in her post – taken during the UK’s anti-bullying week – sparked a furious new row in Westminster at a time when Mr Johnson is attempting to rest his government after the departure of top aide Dominic Cummings last week. 

Shadow home office minister Holly Lynch said the ‘initial, unedited report’ must be published in full and called for an independent investigation.

‘These are serious allegations that suggest Boris Johnson tried to interfere with an investigation into bullying accusations against one of his closest political allies,’ the Labour MP said.

The Home Secretary apologised and said there were ‘no excuses’ for what happened but highlighted Sir Alex’s assessment of her awareness.

She told the BBC that ‘any upset that I’ve caused is completely unintentional and at the time, of course it says it’s in the report, that issues were not pointed out to me’.

Later on, Sir Philip released a statement through the FDA union for civil servants saying that he was ‘at no stage asked to contribute evidence’ to the investigation.

‘The advice states that no feedback was given to the Home Secretary and that she was therefore unaware of issues that she might otherwise have addressed. This is not correct,’ he said.

‘As early as August 2019, the month after her appointment, she was advised that she must not shout and swear at staff.

‘I advised her on a number of further occasions between September 2019 and February 2020 about the need to treat staff with respect and to make changes to protect health, safety and wellbeing.’

Mr Johnson, who is the ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code, judged that Ms Patel did not breach the rules and continues to have ‘full confidence in her’ and ‘considers this matter now closed’.

Mr Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton said: ‘The Prime Minister does personally take these allegations exceedingly seriously. He loathes bullying.

‘He did say that he would not tolerate bullying. He hasn’t tolerated bullying. It is not his belief that Priti Patel is a bully.’

Downing Street indicated that the full report into Ms Patel’s conduct would not be published in order to protect those who gave evidence. 

STEPHEN GLOVER: Now we know. It’s Boris Johnson and his gang against the world

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel sorry for Boris Johnson. The gods really do seem to have it in for him.

No sooner does he sack two infamous male bullies – advisers Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain – than along comes an official report declaring that Home Secretary Priti Patel is also a bully.

Most prime ministers in his position would surely have dismissed her. It is said to be the first time a minister found guilty of a serious breach of the ministerial code has not resigned.

The author of the report – the Prime Minister’s adviser on standards, Sir Alex Allan – has thrown in the towel in exasperation. Boris has merely announced that he has ‘full confidence’ in the Home Secretary, and has urged Tory MPs to ‘form a square around the Pritster’.

Admittedly, the feisty Mrs Patel yesterday issued a statement apologising for upsetting people in the past. Last night she ate humble pie on what for her was an unprecedented scale in an interview with the BBC’s Vicki Young, offering an ‘unreserved, fulsome apology’.

Boris Johnson will not fire Priti Patel as Home Secretary over allegations of bullying despite an official report, instead he told MPs to 'form a square around the Pritster'

Boris Johnson will not fire Priti Patel as Home Secretary over allegations of bullying despite an official report, instead he told MPs to 'form a square around the Pritster'

Boris Johnson will not fire Priti Patel as Home Secretary over allegations of bullying despite an official report, instead he told MPs to ‘form a square around the Pritster’

But there hasn’t been much evidence of regret over Mrs Patel’s conduct in No 10. I’m afraid the Prime Minister has again opened himself up to the charge that there is one law for senior Tories and another for the rest of humanity.

Just as he was accused in May of protecting Cummings after it was revealed that the chief adviser had broken the lockdown, so he is now being blamed for favouring a colleague.

With former senior civil servants, Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer and much of the media lining up to criticise him, there’s no doubt Mr Johnson has spent a little more of his dwindling political capital. He’s a bit weaker this morning than 24 hours ago.

And yet there was another way which would have allowed Mrs Patel to stay on in her job without the Prime Minister suffering significant collateral damage. He could, and should, have demonstrated that he grasped the gravity of Sir Alex’s report.

He could have said he had spoken to Priti Patel at length, and she had undertaken to ensure there won’t be any further plausible charges of bullying made against her while she is Home Secretary.

An official report declared that Home Secretary Priti Patel (pictured) is a bully

An official report declared that Home Secretary Priti Patel (pictured) is a bully

An official report declared that Home Secretary Priti Patel (pictured) is a bully

Rather than leave it to his hastily assembled new press team to make the case, Mr Johnson should have emphasised in the statement released by No 10 that Sir Alex had written that Mrs Patel’s bullying was ‘unintentional’. Moreover, ‘she [had] – legitimately – not always felt supported by the [the Home Office]’.

In short, he should have acknowledged the gravity of the findings against Mrs Patel, while suggesting there were mitigating factors to explain, though not to justify, what was absolutely unacceptable behaviour.

Instead of which, Mr Johnson breezily declared his full confidence in the Home Secretary – as though there were really no case to answer. The jocular and affectionate nickname reference to the ‘Pritster’ is part Bullingdon Club member, part ‘Boy’s Own’. It’s Boris and his gang against the world.

The fascinating question is why he should have so misread the situation as to appear almost blasé about the considered conclusions of Sir Alex, a respected and experienced senior civil servant, in a report which the PM himself set up nine months ago.

The author of the report – the Prime Minister's adviser on standards, Sir Alex Allan (pictured) – has thrown in the towel in exasperation

The author of the report – the Prime Minister's adviser on standards, Sir Alex Allan (pictured) – has thrown in the towel in exasperation

The author of the report – the Prime Minister’s adviser on standards, Sir Alex Allan (pictured) – has thrown in the towel in exasperation

Boris lacks some of the basic political skills one expects in a prime minister. There is something missing. He seems incapable of imagining how those very different from himself in temperament and background might feel about bullying.

Perhaps this is because he is by nature genial, and always prefers the carrot over the stick. He has probably seldom, if ever, bullied anyone himself, and may never have been a victim of bullying. Maybe he wrongly assumes that a somewhat small woman could never be capable of instilling fear.

There is another possible explanation of his inability to convey appropriate disapproval of Mrs Patel’s behaviour. Throughout his adult life Mr Johnson has been in a succession of scrapes – often, though not always, connected to sexual shenanigans – from which he has escaped without displaying notable self-recrimination.

Johnson was accused in May of protecting Cummings (pictured) after it was revealed that the chief adviser had broken the lockdown

Johnson was accused in May of protecting Cummings (pictured) after it was revealed that the chief adviser had broken the lockdown

Johnson was accused in May of protecting Cummings (pictured) after it was revealed that the chief adviser had broken the lockdown

The sense of indulgence he has applied to his own misbehaviour is apparently also extended to those close to him. Easygoing about his own misdemeanours, he can’t get very aerated by those of friends and colleagues.

This is a potentially lethal trait in a prime minister since it fosters the impression that there are two tribes – Boris Johnson’s and the rest of the country – which should be judged by different standards.

Of course, I don’t doubt that some senior officials at the Home Office (described by one former Labour home secretary as ‘not fit for purpose’) are expert in obfuscation, and often inept. They could drive any of us mad.

In 2018, Amber Rudd resigned as home secretary after supposedly misleading a Commons committee over deportation targets. A subsequent report (ironically written by Sir Alex Allan) found that Home Office officials gave her the wrong information and later failed to clear up the problem.

Nor should we imagine that Priti Patel is the only senior minister ever to shout and swear at officials. Former prime minister Gordon Brown allegedly threw staplers and mobile phones at aides when he lost his temper.

There have been rumours of other Cabinet ministers bullying subordinates but almost no one is gunning for them. Isn’t there a degree of misogyny in concentrating on Mrs Patel’s outbursts while ignoring those of her male counterparts?

One might add that she would never have risen from humble origins to occupy one of the four great offices of state if she hadn’t possessed pretty sharp elbows. No current minister has been subjected to more unattributed smears and insults.

Nonetheless, bullying is always wrong – as Mrs Patel freely conceded in her interview with Young. Boris believes it is wrong too, but failed to convey his condemnation as he cheerfully exonerated her.

With more deftness and greater sensitivity, he could have saved Priti Patel without doing himself so much damage. As it is, he has needlessly given his enemies ammunition as they burnish his political obituary.

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