Boris Johnson has decided Priti Patel did not breach the ministerial code over bullying accusations – prompting the resignation of his ethics adviser who found she had engaged in “bullying” behaviour.
Sir Alex Allan, the government’s independent adviser on standards, has quit after the prime minister overruled his conclusions about the home secretary’s conduct.
The senior official said Ms Patel had “not consistently met the high standards required by the ministerial code of treating her civil servants with consideration and respect”.
Sir Alex found evidence of “shouting and swearing” from Ms Patel during her time as a minister in different government departments.
He added her approach, on occasions, “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,” he said.
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However, in contradiction to Sir Alex’s findings, Mr Johnson judged the ministerial code was not breached by Ms Patel.
The prime minister said he had full confidence in his home secretary and “considers this matter now closed”.
It also emerged that Mr Johnson had urged Tory MPs, in a WhatsApp message, to “form a square around the Prittster”.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said the prime minister had been “reassured that the home secretary is sorry for inadvertently upsetting those whom she was working with”.
“He is also reassured that relationships in the Home Office are much improved, and that’s the basis on which he took the decision,” the spokesman added.
Downing Street also pointed to “mitigating factors” around Ms Patel’s behaviour, as outlined in Sir Alex’s findings.
In his findings, Sir Alex noted how, “justifiably in many instances”, Ms Patel had been “frustrated” by civil servants’ “lack of responsiveness” and her feelings of a “lack of support”.
Sir Alex said there was “no evidence that she was aware of the impact of her behaviour, and no feedback was given to her at the time”.
He added there had been “different and more positive behaviour” from Ms Patel since the issues were first raised with her.
A government source said Sir Alex resigned because the prime minister ignored his advice.
A breach of the ministerial code usually leads to a prime minister – the ultimate arbiter of the code – asking the minister in question to resign.
Sir Alex’s departure follows an eight-month wait for the results of his inquiry into the home secretary’s behaviour, with the prime minister accused of having sat on the findings since the summer.
An investigation into bullying allegations against Ms Patel was launched back in March, with the Cabinet Office asked by the prime minister to “establish the facts” over whether she breached the ministerial code.
Ms Patel thanked Mr Johnson for his continued support on Friday and admitted to having been “direct” with officials, as well as having “at times got frustrated”.
“I am sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people,” she said. “It has never been my intention to cause upset to anyone.”
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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson had been “found wanting when his leadership has been tested” and said, if he were prime minister, Ms Patel would have been sacked.
“It is one rule for Boris Johnson and his friends, another for everyone else,” said Sir Keir.
“The prime minister has previously said he ‘loathes bullying’. Yet when one of his own ministers is found to have bullied their staff he ignores the damning report sat on his desk and instead protects them.”
The Labour leader called for the full findings into Ms Patel’s conduct to be published and for Mr Johnson and the home secretary to face questions in parliament next week.
But Number 10 indicated a full report of Sir Alex’s findings would not be published.
“In order to protect the confidentiality of participants in the exercise, it wouldn’t be right or proper to publish any details that would be able to identify them,” Mr Johnson’s spokesman said.
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The inquiry into Ms Patel’s behaviour followed the resignation of the Home Office’s most senior civil servant, Sir Philip Rutnam , in February amid widespread reports of a bitter feud between himself and Ms Patel.
At the time, Sir Philip revealed he had received allegations of Ms Patel “shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands”, and argued her behaviour had “created fear”.
His departure as the Home Office’s permanent secretary is still the subject of an employment tribunal, with Sir Philip pursuing a claim for constructive dismissal.
Around the same time as Sir Philip’s exit, further allegations about Ms Patel’s behaviour – from her time at the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for International Development – also emerged.
Ms Patel rejected all of the allegations against her, while the home secretary’s supporters claimed she had been the victim of a smear campaign.
The prime minister had vowed to “stick with Prit”.
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