We were discussing the state of Westminster on Christopher Hope’s podcast when I ventured the question: “What’s the point of Dominic Raab?”. “Chopper”, as he likes to be known, goggled and nearly swallowed his Adam’s apple before mumbling “he’s, er, a distinguished lawyer”.
Within minutes of Raab’s resignation the affable Hope, who is also now signed up with GB News, was on social media punting the former Deputy Prime Minister’s exclusive self-exculpation for The Daily Telegraph, headlined “The people of Britain will pay the price for this Kafkaesque Saga”.
Before being drawn into another round of corrosive culture war, it is worth remembering that the most persuasive reason for any minister’s premature departure remains Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s damning “Not up to it”.
By definition, Dominic Raab was not up to being a Cabinet Minister, let alone Deputy Prime Minister because of the plight in which he finds himself. Any intelligent manager, let alone a distinguished lawyer, should have been able to read the room. These days any senior executive would be unlikely to get away with what Adam Tolley KC describes as “abrasiveness” and acting “in a way which was intimidating, in the sense of unreasonably and persistently aggressive in the context of a workplace meeting”.
The people of Britain will not miss his services. For all his hard-driving style, Raab has little to show for his five years in the Cabinet. He got nowhere when in charge of Exiting the European Union beyond admitting “he hadn’t quite understood” how “we are particularly reliant on the Dover Calais crossing point” for UK trade. Tolley KC finds that his treatment of officials at that time could be “intimidating and unreasonably demanding”. As Foreign Secretary, he is best remembered for being on holiday in Corfu, where the “sea was closed”, while the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan took place. After his stints as Justice Secretary, his much vaunted British Bill of Rights is still a dead duck. Standing in for Sunak at PMQs, he took a regular slapping from Angela Rayner.
Raab’s unpleasant behaviour is a symptom of his mediocrity. It is often the small man who takes up martial arts as he did while at Oxford University. Similarly the boss who struggles to deliver himself is often the one who is most demanding, aka nasty, to his subordinates.
Tolley accepts Raab’s description of his own working style as “direct, inquisitorial, impatient and demanding”. He says Raab was usually on top of his brief. Others in Whitehall would disagree; they tell me that this minister was exceptionally prone to cancelling scheduled meetings because he had more important things to do, and then not being in command of the material when they finally took place. As we know from Tolley’s report, Raab’s bad behaviour stood out and shocked veteran civil servants. Cynically, as the investigation dragged on, I had assumed that Raab would get away with it à la Priti Patel, but mandarins past and present consistently predicted that he would be “toast”.
The ministerial codes in force during Raab’s time at the top, and quoted in the report, are explicit. The “same norms and standards” should apply in government as in any workplace. “We need to establish a new culture of respect at the centre of public life. One in which everyone can feel confident that they are working in a safe and secure environment.” Those were the reasonable aspirations set by in 2019 by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a man seldom accused of Wokery. If Johnson did not mean it he should not have said it, however vigorously his allies try to argue against it in the aftermath of Raab’s fall.
Senior civil servants were aware of the culture they were under instruction to establish. If Raab was unaware or did not respect it, he has only himself to blame. Rishi Sunak’s commendable handling of this affair by the book only underlines how differently he regards the obligations of accountability and integrity.
Codes for other people did matter to Raab. Tolley details that he was warned off by the Permanent under Secretary after, inaccurately and intimidatingly, telling an FCDO official they were in breach of the civil service code, potentially a sacking matter. In his submissions, Raab disputed that this happened. In eloquent legalese Tolley states: “I prefer the evidence of Sir Philip.” He similarly accepts the veracity of the four warnings about behaviour to the Lord Chancellor, which were recorded by Antonia Romeo, the top official at the justice department.
The Conservatives have been in power for more than a decade, years characterized by unprecedented fratricidal purges, sackings and resignations. It is not surprising that the government’s ministerial talent pool is running dry. Of the present roster, perhaps only Sunak, Hunt and Gove would be possibles rather than probables in an all-party game of Fantasy Cabinet. There are, as usual, some competent administrators in Sunak’s team. There are others such as Suella Braverman and the now departed Gavin Williamson, who were brought back – just as Johnson brought back Patel – when their previous departures in disgrace would have automatically disqualified them for reappointment elsewhere and at other times.
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The dearth of talent is of great concern to some Tory Grandees. When I mentioned to one the underwhelming emerging consensus that the next leadership contest will be between Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman, they spluttered “they are not even fit to be MPs”. But Badenoch and Braverman exemplify an emerging habit of mind in the party, which is also shared by Raab. Judging from his resignation letter and newspaper article, he does not think he should have resigned. Nor does he understand how democratic government works.
This explains why he took so long to face up to his failings, necessitating the costly and painful inquiry. Any “Kafkaesque process” is his own fault. As the report details, Raab repeatedly argued the toss over the legality of the process as well as the details of the allegations. Adam Tolley KC, with rather more legal experience that Raab’s six years as a junior solicitor, flatly dismisses these legalistic complaints.
Raab boldly asserts “the British public expect ministers to exercise rigorous oversight over officials to prevent democratic mandates being unpicked, raise the game of underperforming parts of government, and prevent Whitehall from squandering taxpayers’ money.” This is a familiar complaint from ideologues who find themselves in government. Perhaps most associated with the late Tony Benn, it implies that ministers are appointed as inquisitors, empowered by an election win to impose their will on the nation on everything while scourging the civil service. That has never been their job, let alone what “the British people” asked them to do. They should manage their area of responsibility in the best interests of all, subject to the law and the will of parliament, and with the assistance of impartial civil servants.
To claim a mandate to bang the table (however acceptably lightly), decree “do it”, and to victimise those who cannot deliver the impractical or illegal, is an abuse of power. Since Johnson’s government, the fashion of ministers has been to criticise, undermine and try to disobey the impartial “norms and standards” rightly constraining any government and on which functioning democracy relies.
The point of Raab, if any, is that he was, however pettily, a manifestation of this tendency. It will be for the good of “the people of Britain” if he is forgotten quickly.
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