Rather than be ashamed that the complaints of bullying against him were upheld in an official report released last Friday, Raab has chosen to show his true colours by launching a bitter attack on civil service staff. The complaints were nothing to do with his behaviour, but, in “setting the threshold for bullying so low”, the report would “encourage spurious complaints against ministers and have a chilling effect on those driving change on behalf of your government – and ultimately the British people,” he said in his resignation letter. He followed this with an indignant opinion piece in the Telegraph. Raab later described the inquiry as a “Kafkaesque saga” and suggested the outcome would encourage some officials to target ministers who “negotiate robustly, pursue bold reforms and persevere in holding civil servants to account”. He added, “If that is now the threshold for bullying in government, it is the people of this country who will pay the price.” And yet what Dominic Raab fails to say is that the bar for bullying was actually set by the High Court in 2021 when it made a ruling on the ministerial code.
The definition of bullying for the purpose of the ministerial code, under which Dominic Raab was bound, is characterised as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour; or abuse or misuse of power in ways that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”.
Raab was trying – and being allowed, unchallenged – to claim the moral high ground. He has been supported by a number of Tories who have spoken in a similar vein.
Joy Morrissey, MP for Beaconsfield, said she was “totally gutted” by Mr. Raab’s resignation, which she claimed was a result of a culture of “whining narcissistic victimhood”. Nadine Dorries said in an interview with TalkTV before the report’s release that she had experienced Mr. Raab’s “brusque” demeanour, but added that he “went out of his way to be extra nice afterwards”, while Craig Mackinlay, MP for South Thanet, said Mr. Raab stepping down from the Government was a “scalp” for civil servants and could set a “dangerous precedent” for ministers moving forward.
The attacks have also moved beyond dangerous rhetoric with Francis Maude, Tory peer and ex-Cabinet Office minister, writing in the Observer on Saturday April 22nd that the Government should be “more robust and less mealy mouthed about ‘politicisation’”.
Maude, who is working on a Whitehall governance review, suggested ministers could have greater powers to appoint their own civil servants, including those with public political links.
Lord Kerslake, the former head of the UK civil service, is so concerned about the nature of these attacks that he has taken the unusual step of speaking out. He said Sunak needed to publicly reject the narrative that complaints of bullying are “all about snowflake millennials and a fifth column in the civil service and the idea that the civil service are working to bring down ministers they don’t like”.
“In an ideal world, the prime minister would declare his support for the civil service and its values and what it does for government and recognise what this is really about, which is a particular minister and his behaviour,” said Kerslake, who led the civil service from 2012 to 2014.
The fact that Sunak has decided not to do this has allowed Raab to take control of the agenda, set himself up as the victim, and undermine the integrity of the civil service in the process.
Adam Tolley’s six month report into Raab’s behaviour when he was in charge of three departments seems to have been brushed to one side.
The investigator concluded that the minister had “acted in a way which was intimidating, in the sense of [being] unreasonably and persistently aggressive in the context of a workplace meeting”, and added that the minister’s conduct “also involved an abuse or misuse of power in a way that undermines or humiliates.”
Bullying is a scourge of many workplaces. People have had their lives destroyed by being subjected to aggressive, demeaning, and belittling behaviour at work. The fact that these people often have power over their livelihoods exacerbates the impact. This is particularly the case for civil servants. Raab follows Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel who both faced serious bullying allegations.
It may well have come as a shock to Raab to find that he cannot bully and intimidate staff in the way he may well have done in other areas of his working life. The civil service is highly unionised and staff are aware of their right to be treated with dignity and respect at work.
There are also broader social harms inflicted by bullying civil servants that undermine democracy. Intimidation inhibits the ability of civil servants to speak truth to power and act impartially, affecting how well government policy is formulated and implemented.
As Dave Penman, the General Secretary of the union which represents senior civil servants, the FDA, said, “The PM has a duty under the ministerial code to defend civil service impartiality. He needs to speak out against his former ally peddling dangerous conspiracy theories and stop giving him a free hand to undermine the impartiality and integrity of the service.”
The civil servants found the courage to speak out. Rishi Sunak needs to display the same backbone and remember that his first duty is to defend the integrity of the service under the ministerial code, not support an old political ally whose toxic behaviour has led to a complete breakdown in trust between ministers and civil servants.