Dominic Raab - Comment

This page records some of the comment that preceded and accompanied the April 2023 resignation of Cabinet Minister Dominic Raab who was found to have bullied civil servants.

First, here is The Times in 2022, quoting a Permanent Secretary:

"This stuff really matters.  It's not OK for people to be treated badly at work, but actually it's a canary in the coalmine for a bigger problem of the civil service not being able to be honest and direct with ministers and tell them what they don't want to hear.  That has consequences for the whole population."

The same article also contained these passages:

When Raab was at the Foreign Office, Lord McDonald says one of his priorities became “protecting my team”, which had an impact on the diplomatic effectiveness of the department. “Scared people don’t work as well as people who are inspired,” he tells me. “It’s quite basic. If your boss isn’t listening to you, isn’t treating you with respect, you are not going to give your best work to that person.” The former head of the Foreign Office thinks there has been a shift in attitudes, which explains why unacceptable behaviour is now being exposed. “I’m not sure it’s worse. I think more and more stuff is emerging about the way Westminster has always been. The demand to be treated with respect is more general, more widely understood and agreed with. Behaviours that have been tolerated for a long time are no longer tolerated and that’s a good thing.”


The tantrums and the tears are of course part of the Westminster soap opera, but there is something more sinister about the culture of bullying and intimidation in Whitehall. “It’s really important that officials do not fear they’re going to be hounded out for speaking the truth,” says one former permanent secretary. “There has been a complete lack of respect for the civil service and for professional advice, a lack of sympathy and a reluctance to accept a system of checks and balances. It’s linked to the populist view of politics that if you are elected and you have a majority in the House of Commons you can basically do what you want – the judges shouldn’t get in the way, the civil service should do what they’re told, business should ‘f*** off’. That’s not the way in which government in this country has worked. All these things are reparable, but first of all you have to call them out.”

Then, in February 2023, The Times carried this report:

When Dominic Raab was sacked by Liz Truss as justice secretary on September 6, the department was “breathing a collective sigh of relief”, as one senior official put it. “Champagne corks are metaphorically popping in the private office,” they said at the time, referring to the 90-strong team supporting the justice secretary.

Seven weeks later Raab had returned. “Anxiety levels shot through the roof,” another civil servant in the department said.

Anonymous accounts given to The Times by senior and junior civil servants in the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have explained why. One member of staff who has since left the department said they regularly witnessed staff in his private office “in floods of tears” and “physically shaken” after meetings and interactions with Raab. He rejects the bullying complaints against him.

“He was known to be very, very abrasive and leaving people in tears,” the official said. “I saw him being very, very aggressive to senior officials on more than one occasion. He wasn’t as bad a bully as other bullies but this is more about his behaviour catching up with him. I’ve sat in rooms with secretaries of state being very demanding but in a more palatable way and you would see people physically shaken.”

Civil servants said that even when Raab did not leave staff in tears he relished the “imbalance of power” between him as a secretary of state and officials — often in their twenties and at the start of their careers.

Raab — who officials say works in an “analogue” way, relying on paper rather than computers — will often demand that a junior member of staff in a meeting “immediately” produce an old document, such as a previously received submission or a piece of advice given to another minister on the topic.

If the official cannot produce the paper straight away, sources say, Raab will stop the meeting, making everybody sit in silence, until the civil servant has returned having found the document in a filing cabinet. “He won’t even acknowledge what’s happened,” a source said. “He’ll just grab the paper and then carry on. It’s humiliating.”

Raab’s spokesman insisted he was never aggressive or demeaning to officials and said it was reasonable for him to expect to be provided with the necessary papers for a meeting.

Other officials described routinely arriving in the office to be told that Raab was unhappy about something and that he wanted a meeting that day but that when they requested further details about why Raab is unhappy or who he wanted in the meeting they would be told they would find out at the meeting.

Sometimes, a source claimed, amid frantic preparations to deal with a wide range of things Raab might have been angered by, his office would then suddenly call and bring forward the meeting by hours — saying it must take place at that very moment. “It’s a theatrical process which he clearly enjoys,” a source said.

The unpredictability in Raab’s mood and how he would react in briefings kept staff “walking on eggshells” the whole time. A senior official who worked under Raab described him diplomatically as “a particular personality”.

Attempting to explain his behaviour, they said: “He probably went home in the evening thinking that he’d stood his ground when things went wrong and it was all in a day’s work. If he’d had any sort of empathy he would have worked out that he wasn’t having the right sort of impact on people around him.

“But it just didn’t sit within his mental map. It was all about him — he’s the boss, he’s the big cheese and things had to be done properly and right for him. Some people just enjoy the power.

“It wasn’t shouting, throwing things about the room, it was more insidious. Particularly with junior staff: he could be very icy, he’d be given a piece of paper and there would be a silence, and he’d say ‘this isn’t good enough’.

“The official would be stammering ‘er, er’ and he’d be saying ‘this isn’t right, it’s not good enough, I can’t accept this’. You don’t have to be physically aggressive for people to be scared.”

The official likened Raab’s staff to the children of abusive parents, saying they were always in “fight or flight” mode.

Junior ministers who have worked under Raab have privately complained about his “undermining behaviour”, such as always referring to them as “JMs” in meetings and never giving them credit but blaming them when things went wrong.

One said: “He was always happy to throw us under the bus when something in the department was going wrong and distanced himself from the issue. But when there was a positive story to tell, he was front and centre of it. He was the first to pat himself on the back.”

Raab’s diary is managed to the minute, which is not unusual for a secretary of state, and often includes five-minute slots with officials to squeeze in as much as possible. There must always be time for a visit to the MoJ gym in the department’s basement.

Raab is also very particular about the formatting of submissions he receives from civil servants. At multiple departments he has insisted they be kept to only two sides of A4 paper. He also requires a senior civil servant to sign in the margin that they have checked the document’s spelling and grammar before it has been sent to him. “He was obsessed with the format of letters,” one official said.

Some staff sympathised with Raab’s penchant for formatting, saying it helped them know what to deliver and avoided ambiguity.

Raab’s allies argue that professionalism explains why he so often clashes with civil servants. He appears to act very differently when surrounded by Tory MPs, including Eddie Hughes, who has worked as a parliamentary private secretary for Raab during two separate spells. Hughes said he found it “hard to reconcile my experience of him” with the allegations he had heard made by officials.

“I find it strange that others can have such a different experience where he transforms into a horrible guy because I haven’t experienced a hint of that,” he said.

Other Tory MPs have publicly defended Raab’s conduct, including Helen Grant, who worked with him at the Foreign Office, who described him as a “very decent, hard-working minister with high professional standards and a solid work ethic” and claimed he had “zero tolerance for bullying”.

This week the Conservative MP Bob Seely said Raab was a “highly professional, decent, competent person” and added: “I found him very decent to work with and someone who behaves with integrity.”

Whether staff in the MoJ will be popping those metaphorical champagne corks again anytime soon will be up to Adam Tolley KC, and ultimately Rishi Sunak. But for now, the champagne has been put on ice.

Adam Tolley's report into allegations that Dominic Raab had bullied his civil servants led to Mr Raab's resignation in April 2023.  David Gauke's comment in Conservative Home summarised the resultant controversy pretty well:

No, the resignation of Dominic Raab does not mean that the UK has become “ungovernable” or that it will be “impossible for Ministers to do their job” or that his departure is a victory for “the Remainer blob” or evidence that the public sector is full of “snowflakes”.

The reaction in some quarters to Raab’s departure has been more revealing than the report produced by Adam Tolley. For some, this is not about the specific question as to whether Raab’s management style constituted bullying, but about a conflict between a Government trying to pursue a Conservative agenda and a civil service establishment trying to stop it. Viewed from that perspective, the loss of Raab is a symbolic defeat that must be avenged.

The principal proponent of this view is, of course, Raab himself. He argues that the bar for bullying had been set so low that this would set “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”. He went on to claim that “if that is now the threshold for bullying in government, it is the people of this country who will pay the price”.

One can see why Raab would want to make this argument. He immediately becomes the victim, more sinned against than sinning, which means that there is little sense that he has left office in disgrace. It seems perfectly possible that his political career – perhaps in the Lords – is not yet finished.

This is not to say that Raab’s protestations are insincere. It is perfectly plausible that he is convinced that elements of the civil service were against him and he is genuinely angry about it. That, after all, appears to have been his state of mind throughout his Ministerial career.

His case has been helped by the fact that the Tolley report was less damning than was expected. But for the accusation relating to his time at the Foreign Office (which, we learn from Raab, related to Brexit negotiations with Spain), he might have been in a position to survive. Tolley is cautious in his wording, refuses to set out the details of the accusations in order to protect confidentiality, and is willing to give Raab the benefit of the doubt on a number of occasions.

The report does, nonetheless, make it clear that Raab was an abrasive Minister who intimidated officials and who was warned repeatedly about his behaviour. Tolley’s view may well have been that it was only evident that Raab crossed the line on a couple of occasions but it is also clear that he was at or near the line as a matter of course.

There are some, of course, who argue that there is where you need to be to get things done. I have previously written elsewhere  why I think that is nonsense. Of course, Ministers need to be demanding but this does not require unpleasantness. All that will do is make officials reluctant to challenge policy proposals or share bad news.

Yes, of course Ministers should challenge and question advice but this can be done courteously, as Michael Gove and many others have demonstrated over many years. And if the work really is not up to standard, Ministers can make use of their private office to deliver the message more often than not.

Tolley suggests that had Raab behaved previously as he has done since the report was commissioned in November, no complaints would have been made. Presumably, Raab does not think that he was ineffective for the last five months of his time in office.

There has been some commentary that this matter reveals the lack of resilience amongst younger civil servants and the public sector cannot cope with robustness as it once could. I am sure it is correct to say that standards have changed, but this critique misses a few points. Clearly, some of the complaints came from senior not junior officials. Yes, the test of what constitutes acceptable behaviour from those in positions of responsibility has changed but this is neither unique to the civil service and the public sector and nor is it a bad thing. Where there is an imbalance of power, we should expect high standards from those who could potentially misuse it.

The most consequential argument made by Raab and his supporters is that civil servants sought to thwart his agenda and the complaints about his behaviour should be seen in that context. The risk, therefore, is that officials who do not like the policies of a particular Minister can orchestrate the removal of that Minister on the basis of complaints about their behaviour. Raab highlighted to the BBC what he saw as resistance by “activist” officials to his approach to Brexit and, while at the MoJ, the Bill of Rights Bill and his reforms to parole.

I have no doubt that MoJ officials raised many concerns about the latter two policies. There are, after all, a lot of concerns to raise. The Bill of Rights Bill is likely to lead to more cases being referred directly to the European Court of Human Rights, and will neither satisfy those who think we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights or those who think we should remain within it without putting up obstacles to UK citizens seeking to enforce those rights. It is a project that Raab has pursued consistently whenever he has been appointed to the MoJ, only for it to be dropped as soon as someone else looked at it.

As for his parole reforms, these are causing widespread concerns within the criminal justice system, putting pressure on prison places and resulting in long term offenders being released having not served in an open prison and adjusting to their new freedoms. Reforms were needed to the parole system but were addressed (by me, as it happens) some years ago.

He was, of course, the Minister and, subject to Parliamentary approval and compliance with the law, entitled to pursue these policies – and indeed the MoJ has produced the relevant legislation. But officials would have been absolutely right to challenge and question the practicalities. That is not being obstructive: that is doing their job and a confident Secretary of State should welcome it. It is better to know of any potential risks in a policy before it is announced than after it is implemented.

The same point applies to Brexit. Our departure from the EU created a whole host of problems, some of which Raab may not have quite understood. We already see the blame for Brexit not working out being attributed to the officials who highlighted the difficulties rather than the politicians who created them. There is an audience for this and he is playing to it.

Raab is not a victim of a conspiracy and this incident does not set a precedent which should alarm good Ministers. It is simply about whether a Minister engaged in bullying officials and it was found that on occasion he did. That is all.

The episode nevertheless added considerable strain to the already tense relations with ministers and officials.  Academics Patrick Diamond and Dave Richards suggested that 'the Public Service Bargain' had already been torn up:

On reluctantly accepting his fate, Dominic Raab’s statement in the wake of Adam Tolley KC’s report into allegations of bullying will go down in Whitehall folklore as winning the masterclass award for ‘passive-aggressiveness’. Raab’s criticisms concerning both the process [an increasingly familiar line of attack by those wishing to gaslight the ministerial code] and the ‘low-threshold’ it has set regarding accusations of bullying, appear to say the least self-serving.

However, what is unusual in the Raab case is the scale of publicly expressed discord by Whitehall insiders in the run up up to his decision to go. Hours before the resignation, Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union representing senior civil servants, made clear the extent to which relations between Raab and his officials had broken down. SW1’s mandarins appeared to hold Rishi Sunak’s feet to the fire by declaring that ‘If he [Raab] stays in the department, senior people will want to walk.’ In constitutional terms, the bedrock of the minister–civil servant relationship, established by the 1918 Haldane Report, is that it operates as a symbiotic partnership, one that is indivisible. Clearly, as Tolley’s Report reveals, what is meant to be a co-dependent relationship was not so in the case of Raab and his officials, particularly during his time at the Ministry of Justice.

Senior Whitehall mandarins have traditionally been regarded as a powerful bastion within the framework of the British state. Yet they have largely avoided airing grievances publicly, as was expected given Whitehall’s convention of anonymity. The Raab affair in part reveals the fragility of ministerial-civil service relations and provides further evidence that the public service bargain has collapsed.  

There have of course been previous moments in which relations between the political and mandarin class have been under strain. The first Thatcher Government arrived in office suspicious of a Whitehall mind-set it regarded as enthralled by a ‘Keynesian-welfarist’ mentality. What then followed was an infamous dinner party held at Number 10 to informally win over the permanent secretaries to the thinking of the new government. It proved a disaster. Thatcher observed that: ‘such a menu of complaints and negative attitudes as was served up that evening was enough to dull any appetite’? What then followed, was a sizeable turnover in senior officials, including Heads of the Civil Service, Ian Bancroft, and Douglas Wass, who were gently eased out.

Similarly, in 1997 following eighteen years of Conservative government, Tony Blair’s Labour government came to power suspicious of the culture and mindset within Whitehall’s senior ranks. New Labour was particularly concerned about the communications capability of Whitehall departments that were seen as old-fashioned and amateurish in approach. The Blair years were scarcely immune to the breakdown in trust between ministers and officials. Some argued the Government would set about imposing a ‘Millbank model’ by subterfuge, ensuring the ‘right’ people were appointed to drive the New Labour project forward. 

Subsequent evidence did not support this, though there were high profile casualties, notably the long-serving permanent secretary at the Treasury, Terry Burns, who left Whitehall earlier than expected. Yet despite these moments of high tension and friction, it is revealing that for the most part, senior civil servants who stepped away from Whitehall continued to abide by an omerta code of silence regarding personalised criticisms directed at the incumbent government of the day. 

Two decades on, that is no longer the case. The raft of permanent secretaries who have left Whitehall prematurely in recent years seem more willing not only to defend the role of the civil service to the public and the media, but to make explicit criticisms of their political masters.  Often these have been high-profile and rancorous departures from the most senior grades including: the alleged sacking of Mark Sedwill as Cabinet Secretary; Phillip Rutnam from the Home Office (who then sued for unfair dismissal); Richard Heaton from the Ministry of Justice; and Simon McDonald who was asked to step down from the Foreign Office preceding a contentious merger with the Department for International Development.

The former Cabinet Secretary, Richard Wilson, acknowledged that civil servants are now regarded, ‘as if we [are] figures in our own right rather than servants of the government’. It is more likely that civil service leaders will enter the arena of public debate by participating in forums such as the ‘Better Government Initiative’ which has been openly critical of Ministers. Moreover, Simon McDonald recently rebuked Dominic Raab for abusing his officials.  

In recent years, relations appear to have worsened significantly to the point where the ‘Public Service Bargain’ (PSB) that once structured the relationship between ministers and civil servants has been torn up. The PSB meant bureaucrats ‘exchanged overt partisanship, some political rights and a public political profile in return for permanent careers, honours, and a six-hour working day’. Ministers had to accept non-partisan merit-based appointment in return for the loyalty, obedience, and dedication of their public servants.

The PSB in Whitehall is being recast by the growth of external appointees; officials are less anonymous than in the past, while there have been efforts to hold civil servants directly accountable to parliamentary committees. The civil service ‘monopoly’ over policymaking has been undermined by the growing influence of think tanks, ad-hoc advisory committees, and special advisers. Many of the ideas that influenced the free market approach to Brexit pursued by recent governments came from think-tanks rather than the civil service. Ministers now increasingly build their own policy networks, picking and choosing civil service advice at will. Conservative governments have invariably adopted a mind-set of pursuing permanent revolution in Whitehall.

Yet the breakdown of the established PSB raises awkward issues for ministers and civil servants. For ministers, who will provide them with honest, if unwelcome advice about the viability of chosen policies? The capacity to speak ‘truth to power’ is not only an important check and balance in a liberal democracy. It matters if governments are to avoid succumbing to damaging policy blunders and delivery fiascos, as well as solving intractable policy problems, such as poor productivity performance in the UK economy. And in crisis management, who other than civil servants have the capacity to co-ordinate the unwieldy machinery of government? Politicians might find it expedient to attack civil servants. Nevertheless, doing so has unintended consequences, leaving ministers more exposed in a febrile political environment.

For an incoming Labour government, the dilemma is whether to accept the dismantling of the traditional PSB and to devise a new model of civil service-ministerial relations; or to seek to restore the main elements of the 20th century bargain. There is certainly a case for revisiting the organisational structure and ethos of the British permanent bureaucracy which has long been criticised for its failure to focus effectively on the delivery of policy and is regularly lambasted for lack of progress on diversity. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has spoken eloquently of forging a new model of governing that is both decentralised and more responsive to the needs of communities.

Yet for an incoming Labour government, resurrecting the status quo in the public service bargain is potentially advantageous. A new administration will confront a multitude of fundamental governing challenges, as well as a struggling economy and a mission to improve productivity. Having been out of power for thirteen years, it will rely heavily on the governing experience and expertise of the British civil service. An incoming government will want officials to help enthusiastically enact its agenda. Re-establishing a public service bargain based on a reciprocal relationship between ministers and the civil service remains a potentially effective approach. As such, paradoxically, an incumbent Labour government with radical ambitions may well be more conservative in its approach to managing Whitehall than recent Conservative administrations.

Sam Freedman said this about The Raab report and what it tells us about Westminster:

In many ways Dominic Raab’s resignation is unimportant. Deputy Prime Ministers in the British system are of variable significance, having no formal constitutional role, but he was one of the least consequential we’ve ever had. Raab’s replacement as Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, is an upgrade, albeit one with very limited scope to change much. Politicians, as a collective, are held in such low regard by the public that being told another one has behaved badly is unlikely to change many voting preferences.

But it is worth dwelling on because of what it tells us about Westminster. The moment the investigation into Raab’s bullying was announced I tweeted that I expected many more civil servants to come forward with complaints. I’ve rarely been more confident about a prediction because, like everyone who hangs around Whitehall, I knew Raab’s reputation. His behaviour had been an open secret for years. The high turnover in his private office was a matter of record as were the higher than normal salaries offered to officials to work with him (“danger money” as more than one described it to me).

The Report

The independent report by Adam Tolley KC was damning enough to, eventually, force Raab’s exceptionally grudging resignation, as it found that on several occasions he behaved in a way that met the definition of bullying in the ministerial code (e.g. “misuse of power in a way that undermines or humiliates”). But it doesn’t quite capture the effect he had on civil servants, in part because Tolley had to preserve the confidentiality of those involved, and so could only describe incidents in very general terms. As a consequence there has been much online mockery of the report’s stiff legal descriptions of what, out of context, seem like fairly minor incidents like calling a piece of work “utterly useless” and “woeful”.

Another reason the report comes across as it does, is that the most common model of workplace bullying is quite hard to describe on paper, as it’s deliberately insidious. It doesn’t involve physical violence or spittle-flecked rage, but just consistent low-level undermining and aggression. Often it can be difficult to pin down how deliberate it is. Tolley says Raab should have known the likely impact of his behaviour. Certainly some of those who worked for him that I’ve spoken to believed his approach was intentional.

Either way the “what’s all the fuss about” response is frustrating because those of us who’ve worked in Westminster know how high a bar there is for Ministerial behaviour to lead to a resignation, or for anything to happen at all. The idea that civil servants engaged in some kind of cunning conspiracy to remove him is laughable. If it was a politically motivated tactic then where are the complaints about all the other Ministers?

Indeed over many years people were dissuaded from making complaints, and senior civil servants tried to find ways to work round the misery he caused. Permanent secretaries are desperate to avoid these kinds of situations going public precisely because they know they will be used as ammunition to undermine the independence of the civil service and attack supposed ideological bias. Rather like the BBC they are so hyper-aware of the punches coming their way they have a tendency to over-compensate. It’s why there was so much anger amongst senior mandarins about Labour appointing Sue Gray as Starmer’s Chief of Staff.

The real scandal, though, is not that a minister has been forced out by a shadowy cabal of Remainers, but that everyone knew about his behaviour and nothing was done about it, beyond a few quiet chats, until a couple of civil servants made formal complaints and the floodgates opened. Raab has highlighted the historic nature of the grievances against him but it’s hardly surprising people didn’t come forward at the time given how other instances of bullying have been dealt with.

Priti Patel’s behaviour at the Home Office was so bad that her Permanent Secretary, Phillip Rutnam, resigned and pursued a unfair dismissal claim, accusing her of a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him (which was settled at a cost of £370k to the taxpayer). Boris Johnson’s first ethics adviser Sir Alex Allan found she had breached the ministerial code but Johnson overruled him. So Allan resigned instead. Hardly an encouraging precedent for civil servants.

None of this is new. There have always been Ministers who have behaved badly towards staff, from all parties. Liam Byrne’s “soup memo” was a lowlight of the New Labour years, though he wasn’t the worst offender. Gordon Brown would regularly lash out in frustration, famously hurling mobile phones and other objects around No. 10. Nor are the problems limited to Ministers, certain MPs, from across the political spectrum, are notorious for the high turnover of staff in their offices.

But it is getting worse. And this doesn’t just matter because of the harm caused to civil servants and aides on the receiving end of aggression. It also leads to poorer outcomes for the country. Raab seems to be under the impression his approach was necessary to improve standards but his Ministerial career record is a refutation of that belief. He failed as Brexit Secretary; oversaw the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan; and has left the court system in a mess. Patel’s record was awful too.

Ministers who get things done work effectively with civil servants. That doesn’t mean meekly accepting whatever advice you’re given; it’s entirely possible to challenge back respectfully. Thatcher was not known for her reticence in expressing views but treated her private office with remarkable solicitousness, going out of her way to buy them presents and write personal notes, even while expressing her fierce opinions on submissions. (She did not take the same approach to her senior ministers, which ultimately led to her defenestration).

Intimidating behaviour means good officials quit, and those remaining avoid giving you honest feedback and advice. An ex-civil servant, Amy Gandon, who has interviewed 50 current and former officials for a project on Whitehall morale, found a widespread perception that things are getting worse, and that the proportion of Ministers who have poor relationships with their departments is growing. As one experienced official told her:

“There has just been less and less respect from ministers. It’s fuelled from the outside… they land in government with ideas already in their heads… and they come with this attitude that they’re there to overcome us… We’ve never been equals, but you’re now not a partner at work. You’re more like something they have to put up with, a necessary evil”.

It is something I’ve heard frequently from former senior civil servants I’ve been interviewing for my book. And these worsening relationships lead to worse decision making as officials stop telling Ministers things they don’t want to hear for fear of the reaction.

How have we got here?

In most organisations there is a transparent process for dealing with bullying or other misconduct. A complaint is made to a more senior manager, or the board; HR ensure that criteria are followed; actions are taken depending on the severity of the incident. The existence of this process acts as a constraint on behaviour. It can be gently noted to those behaving badly that a formal process will be triggered unless they sort themselves out.

Of course there are plenty of dysfunctional organisations where this doesn’t happen in a timely or orderly way. It’s not hard to think of high profile examples – look at what’s happening to the CBI. But a combination of employment law and reputational risk does, increasingly, incentivise the right conduct.

There is none of this in Whitehall. Ministers are not employees and their appointments are entirely dependent on the whim of the Prime Minister. There is no formal complaints procedure – Sunak ordered Tolley’s investigation of Raab because there was nothing existing in place. At the time he had no ethics adviser but even if he had done any process would have been bespoke. The Ministerial Code, with its clause on bullying, has no statutory basis. It’s entirely up to the Prime Minister how they wish to interpret it and what they want to include in it. As Johnson proved.

This is hopeless for everyone involved. With no process Ministers don’t know where they stand and there’s no opportunity for earlier, low-level interventions, to allow someone to alter their behaviour before a formal trigger is pulled. Nor is there anyone whose job it is to manage a formal process that would happen in a consistent way, or any detailed criteria for what would constitute misconduct. Civil servants are forced to either stay quiet or set off a train of events that leads the national news. At very least there should be an proper complaints process. Apart from anything else it would be in Ministers interests to have clarity on where the boundaries lie.  

The lack of any proper systems is exacerbated by the lack of support for new Ministers. Prime Ministers are forced to choose the executive from a very limited pool of talent and experience. Moreover, they are often trying to balance other considerations like loyalty and party faction alongside ability. Many Ministers have no senior management experience and no idea how to get the most out of people. The system is built on a fiction that they don’t do any management and that that’s the job of permanent secretaries, but in reality those who want to achieve anything need to understand how to motivate, talent-spot, and redesign things that don’t work for them. Some basic training would help.

Ends and means

But there is a bigger problem with Westminster culture that goes beyond formal processes and systems and leads to Gandon (and me) finding that things are getting worse. Politics is inherently tribal and tribalism tends to lead to defences of bad behaviour on the grounds that the ends justify the means. Naturally if you’ve convinced yourselves that the other lot are malevolent incompetents then almost anything is justified in the pursuit of kicking them out of office or preventing them getting in.

This is true in every country but British politics is unusual in being so spectacularly winner-takes-all – having a majoritarian voting system; almost total executive dominance for a government with a healthy majority; and a constitution which is heavily dependent on convention. It depends more than others, therefore, on self-regulation of behaviour. As Gladstone put it: “The British constitution presumes more boldly than any other the good sense and the good faith of those who work it.”

Whether this presumption was ever fully justified is a good exam question, but it certainly isn’t now. The latest barrage of negative and highly misleading adverts from both Labour and Conservatives is just further evidence that people have long stopped caring about fair play. Any remaining vestiges of “good chap” theory were thoroughly dismantled under Johnson’s premiership – with its various deceits and constitutional outrages.   

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that resignations have become seen as signals of weakness rather than honour. And that any setbacks should be treated as a victory for malicious forces rather than an opportunity for self-reflection. It is also unsurprising that Ministers, or at least the ones that drink the ideological Kool-Aid on offer from their client journalists, now see the civil service as part of the enemy faction to be overcome.

This goes well beyond the traditional grumbling about plans being thwarted by Sir Humphreys to somewhere much darker. Raab has decided to prove how much he isn’t a bully by immediately laying into the “activist civil servants” of his imagination. Even if Ministers don’t believe it, the temptation to performatively attack their officials for favourable coverage – like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s passive aggressive notes on desks – is too strong for many. At the extreme this leads to incredibly self-defeating decisions like closing the civil service fast stream (now reversed), or proposing to cut 90,000 jobs with no rationale whatsoever (also now reversed after an enormous amount of pointless effort had been expended).

Perhaps all this is just down to a government that’s run out of energy, ideas and purpose, flailing around looking for someone else to blame. Maybe the fact that Raab has finally been forced out shows that, in the last resort, British politics still has the ability to self-regulate. After all Johnson and Truss were also dumped in favour of Sunak who, personally, has a far better relationship with officials than his predecessors. But Sunak’s reply to Raab’s resignation letter, full of lavish praise, is another indication, like his steadfast support for Suella Braverman, that, when he is forced to choose, he is prepared to prioritise the fantasies of ideologues over decency and integrity. Until that stops, I fear things will keep getting worse.

Martin Stanley

Spotted something wrong?
Please do drop me an email if you spot anything that is out-of-date, or any other errors, typos or faulty links.