How safe is Priti Patel, the Home Secretary? On one level she is battling for her political life after a Cabinet Office investigation found that she had broken the ministerial code in her treatment of Home Office staff. An independent report that was handed to the Prime Minister several months ago said Patel’s frustrations in the job “manifested itself in forceful expression, including some occasions of shouting and swearing”, adding that this “can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals.”
But the Prime Minister is standing by his Home Secretary, telling the Conservative MPs’ WhatsApp group that the party had to “form a square around the prittster”.
The government is, barring last minute disasters, about to conclude a Brexit deal. It will contain compromises. The last thing Boris needs is an avowed Brexiteer like Patel exiled to the backbenches and liberated in the next few weeks to accuse him of selling out.
She represents a strand of robust conservatism. For that reason, Patel is popular with many Tory MPs, who see her as a toughie in a dysfunctional department.
Boris Johnson also genuinely likes her. It helps that she has a sharp wit. Patel was no fan of Dominic Cummings. More than one MP points out that she christened Dom “David Koresh” after the Waco religious cult leader who infamously blew his followers up.
Accordingly, the Prime Minister has led the defence of Patel. He has claimed that she did not in fact break the ministerial code so her bullying was not intentional. Conservatives have pointed to the fact that the report states “there is no evidence that she was aware of the impact of her behaviour.”
Johnson’s interpretation of the Code is, by most accounts, an inaccurate one. The Code states clearly that ministers should “treat all those with whom they come into contact with consideration and respect”, and that “harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent with the Ministerial Code.” There is no clause for intentionality.
In any case, the Prime Minister, as arbiter of the Ministerial Code, has the power to overrule the findings of independent investigations. He has done just that, and as a result, Sir Alex Allan, Downing Street’s independent adviser on the Ministerial Code, who conducted the investigation into Patel’s behaviour, has resigned.
The situation remains fluid, as demonstrated by the Labour party’s eerie silence this afternoon. There will be pressure over the coming days on the Prime Minister to release the full report and while many Conservatives have publicly backed Patel, if pressure grows some may begin to question whether it is conscionable for them to overlook the report’s findings.
Boris, though, is determined to stick it out.