Jill Rutter reflects on the resignation of Dominic Raab after the publication of the Tolley report – which upheld two bullying complaints against the former Justice Secretary – suggesting Sunak missed an opportunity to show that standards matter to him.
Ever since Alastair Campbell took control of government communications, No.10 has tried to control the media agenda with themed weeks laid out on their infamous ‘grid’. Rishi Sunak may have hoped that last week would be an education week to follow on from a crime week. Instead, it became sleaze week.
First, his speech on maths teaching was overshadowed when he was revealed to be the object of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards investigation. The Prime Minister had failed to inform MPs of his wife’s investments in a childcare company set to benefit from a Budget move to encourage childminders to register with agencies. That, in turn, may have prompted the long overdue publication of the register on ministerial interests, in which that interest was noted.
Second, Downing Street is waiting for the verdict of the investigation instigated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments on the appointment of Richard Sharp as BBC Chair. That appointment was of course made when Boris Johnson was Prime Minister. And Sharp’s problems arose from his failure to disclose to either the DCMS select committee or the appointment panel his role in helping Mr Johnson out of his then financial woes.
However, Sharp is a former adviser to Sunak and his ex-boss at Goldman Sachs. There are already reports that the findings will make unwelcome reading for Sharp and may well force him to bow to the inevitable and step down, with his only defence that he took advice from the Cabinet Secretary.
That BBC appointment was already mired in controversy after Johnson’s No.10 had two goes at trying to try to fix it – first by briefing, before the competition even started, that they wanted to see Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore in the role and then by ordering a rerun when former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was deemed unappointable by the panel. If Sharp resigns, that competition will have to be rerun yet again.
Third, there are rumours (to be fair, when aren’t there?) that the allegedly long and undoubtedly questionable resignation honours lists of both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are imminent. Both are likely to highlight problems around the use and abuse of the honours system to reward cronies – and in Truss’s case to reward spectacular failure.
Although precedent is for Prime Ministers to allow their predecessors’ choices to go through, whenever these lists see the light of day, Sunak will face criticism for failing to veto the gongs handed out by his disgraced predecessors.
Last but not least, the months long investigation of complaints about the bullying behaviour of Dominic Raab has finally been completed. Boris Johnson notoriously set some of the tone for his administration – and in the process lost his first ethics adviser – by refusing to act when bullying allegations against then Home Secretary were upheld. Rishi Sunak has made clear that he wants his administration to be very different from Johnson’s. Consequently, his handling of the report was a test of his claim to be different.
The investigation was carried out by a KC because at the time Sunak still had to secure the services of an ethics adviser after Johnson had lost a second one in the summer of 2022.
The Tolley report landed on Sunak’s desk on Thursday morning. There was then a hiatus which ended when Raab issued his own intemperate resignation statement. While accepting he had to fulfil his commitment to go if any of the complaints were upheld – two were – he made clear he did not agree with the conclusions. There was little sense of contrition in the statement. Instead, he argued that ‘two adverse findings are flawed and set a dangerous precedent for the conduct of good government.’
He went on to elucidate the consequences of the implicit standard for ministerial mistreatment of civil servants: ‘In setting the threshold for bullying so low, this inquiry has set a dangerous precedent. It will encourage spurious complaints against ministers, and have a chilling effect on those driving change on behalf of your government – and ultimately the British people.’
It is clear that Raab still does not accept that what he sees as the reasonable actions of a minister demanding high standards from civil servants can be interpreted by others as the creation of an intimidating working environment.
Intriguingly, Tolley noted that his two most recent permanent secretaries had warned Raab about his behaviour (though without calling it bullying) – discussions Raab did not recall. Tolley backed the civil servants’ account.
Raab then expanded on his letter with an angry article in the Daily Telegraph claiming to be the victim of a unionised cabal of civil servants out to get him. He warned: ‘This precedent sets the playbook for a small number of officials to target ministers, who negotiate robustly on behalf of the country, pursue bold reforms and persevere in holding civil servants to account.’
That has won him supporters among political allies but marks a further downward spiral in already strained relations between ministers and civil servants.
Unfortunately, having persuaded his loyal supporter to go, Rishi Sunak’s reply to Dominic Raab praised him fulsomely, while agreeing that there were shortcomings in the process that needed to be addressed. What he notably failed to do was to take on Raab’s point about a ‘chilling effect’ or indeed use the Tolley report to lay down any sort of marker for the future standards of behaviour he will expect from his ministerial team.
He may have felt it was sufficient to have secured Raab’s departure (and protestations of continued loyalty). But his wimpish response has left a vacuum in which Raab’s claim to have been victimised by a bunch of ‘activist’ civil servants has flourished among his supporters.
Sunak had a chance to take a stand against that, defend the process he set up and its outcomes and put some substance behind his integrity agenda. By failing to take it, he is undermining his claims to be leading a very different sort of government.
By Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.