How bullying became Westminster’s latest culture war

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LONDON —  Rishi Sunak’s righthand man is out of a job, after an inquiry found he mistreated civil servants. But this is Westminster, 2023 — which means the never-ending culture war just found a new target.

Dominic Raab resigned as Britain’s deputy prime minister and justice secretary Friday after a report by the barrister Adam Tolley found he acted in a way which was “intimidating” and “unreasonably and persistently aggressive” toward his officials. 

Yet despite Tolley, a respected independent figure, concluding Raab’s behavior “inevitably” caused staff to feel undermined and humiliated, the outgoing minister left government with a stinging attack on the investigation, claiming the bar for bullying had been set “dangerously low.”

Raab’s departure over matters of personal conduct — two-and-a-half years after former Home Secretary Priti Patel was allowed to keep her job in similar circumstances — marks a decisive shift in the way bullying is treated in Westminster and Whitehall, where complaints by junior staff are widespread but rarely acted upon.

The trouble is, not everyone thinks it’s a step in the right direction.

Standard procedure?

Senior figures throwing their weight around in the corridors of power is nothing new. Gordon Brown was notorious for outbursts of rage as prime minister, while his predecessor Tony Blair’s pugilistic press secretary Alistair Campbell is acknowledged as the inspiration behind Malcolm Tucker, the terrifying antihero of political sitcom The Thick of It. 

Parliamentary staffers and civil servants are likely to come across a dizzying range of behavior in their workplace, from the mildly eccentric to the downright aggressive. 

Landmark reports in 2018 found there was a “widespread” problem with bullying in Westminster, and 12 percent of Whitehall officials reported they had been subjected to bullying. 

Since then, a handful of high-profile MPs have had bullying complaints upheld against them, including Patel and the former House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow. 

Aspects of the employment structure at Westminster and Whitehall are widely seen as contributing to the conditions for such behavior to thrive and go unchecked. 

MPs’ offices are a law unto themselves, with little formal human resources oversight, meaning the people who join their offices could find themselves working for a model boss or a raging tyrant. 

“Working for an MP is an incredibly strange job and there is an understanding that things will always have to be a bit different,” as one staffer puts it, “but the kind of behavior that goes on — in any other corporation you’d be suspended.”

Before the outcome of the Tolley inquiry, Raab’s team briefed that he would make no apologies for expecting high standards of civil servants | Tolga Akmen/EPA-EFE

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union, argues that the lack of clear procedure for dealing with bullying by ministers “actually encourages those extremes of behavior,” because offenders know they are unlikely to face consequences.

Current and former officials who spoke to POLITICO shared stories of being screamed at in front of colleagues, having their work screwed up and thrown in the bin, and being ordered to clean the office floor — and insisted none were isolated episodes, but part of a pattern of behavior. 

Some of these incidents have resulted in formal complaints but many more have not. Two high-ranking ministers are among those named privately as the subject of persistent bullying concerns. 

One former No. 10 adviser said there was a ‘whisper network’ around bullying, meaning the known offenders in parliament “don’t get punished — they become known as being a bully, and people just don’t apply for jobs with them.”

Meet ‘the real world’

The nettle is especially difficult to grasp because the very concept of ‘bullying’ is contested far more fiercely than other forms of misconduct, such as sexual harassment.

Claims have long been met with raised eyebrows, and the underlying suspicion that much of what is termed “bullying” is in fact an overreaction to a robust management style.

In a case of minister vs. civil servant, all the ingredients are there for a new front in Britain’s culture wars.

Before the outcome of the Tolley inquiry, Raab’s team briefed that he would make no apologies for expecting high standards of civil servants. In his resignation letter, Raab went even harder.

“Ministers must be able to give direct critical feedback on briefings and submissions to senior officials,” he wrote, adding that the bar for bullying had been set “dangerously low.” 

In other words, lily-livered civil servants — whom many Conservatives suspect of harboring anti-Tory, anti-Brexit sentiment — were simply not able to cope with the demands placed upon them. 

One Tory MP elected in 2019, Mark Jenkinson, acknowledged bullying does exist, but said some examples cited in recent newspaper reports, such as throwing small objects in anger, or telephoning staff unannounced, did not meet the bar. 

“Anybody who thinks this is bullying needs to meet the real world,” Jenkinson said. “But maybe I just think that because I’m a Northerner.”

While No. 10 officials insist that the PM did not order Dominic Raab to quit, he clearly did not offer him the same protection as Boris Johnson provided former Home Secretary Priti Patel in similar circumstances in 2020 | Neil Hall/EPA-EFE

Matthew Parris, a Times columnist who was a Tory MP in the 1970s and 1980s, said that bullying is now “much less widespread than it used to be, and at the same time people are more sensitive to it.”

He noted that in his day, “MPs would regularly blow their top and bawl somebody out,” and that “most fearsome of all were the secretaries who ran our offices.”

‘Hard process’

The counter-argument runs that bullying is no more subjective than other type of workplace dispute, and can be tested against established definitions set out by mediation service ACAS and under codes of conduct for MPs and ministers. 

And those who have been involved in a grievance process against an MP insist nobody would put themselves through such a gruelling process without good reason.

Jenny McCullough, a former clerk whose bullying complaint against ex-MP Keith Vaz was eventually upheld, said that pursuing her case had been a lengthy, alienating experience, in which he attempted to stall progress and cast doubt on her own motives. 

“The person who complains brings trouble on themselves. It’s a really hard process,” she said, adding that her confidence and feelings of self-worth had not fully recovered after events which occurred years ago. 

The FDA’s Penman added: “If you’re a civil servant and you think you’re being bullied by a minister, you know only the PM can authorize an investigation — you have no rights and you’re challenging one of the most powerful people in the country.” 

The trade union is now calling for an independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the civil service in order to establish a new mechanism through which grievances can be lodged against ministers.

Inside the Ministry of Justice, relief at Raab’s departure was mixed with anger at his parting shot. One official said there was “disappointment but not surprise” at the tone of his resignation.

While No. 10 officials insist that the prime minister did not order Raab to quit, he clearly did not offer him the same protection as Boris Johnson provided Patel in 2020, when he ordered colleagues to “form a square around the Prittster.” 

For now, Sunak’s desire to differentiate himself from Johnson may be civil servants’ main weapon on the new frontier of the culture war.

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