Dominic Raab: Karate black belt under spotlight over bullying claims

Critics claim the Deputy PM caused civil servants to suffer ‘mental health crises’, while allies insist he is simply a ‘demanding’ boss.

Sophie Wingate
Thursday 02 February 2023 15:36 GMT
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Dominic Raab’s political survival hangs in the balance as he is investigated over a raft of bullying claims.

Appointed by Rishi Sunak as his deputy and Justice Secretary, the scrutiny of Mr Raab’s behaviour is causing a headache for the Prime Minister who took on the top job pledging “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.

Mr Sunak is under growing pressure to explain what he knew about his ally’s conduct when he hired him, with reports suggesting he was warned about the bullying allegations that were said to be an open secret in Westminster.

The Prime Minister, whose party is also grappling with accusations related to Boris Johnson and Nadhim Zahawi, has said he appointed lawyer Adam Tolley KC to investigate when he learned of “formal complaints” against Mr Raab.

Dozens of civil servants are believed to be involved in eight formal complaints spanning three Government departments over four years.

Working with Mr Raab led some to suffer “mental health crises”, according to Dave Penman, the leader of the FDA union which represents senior Whitehall officials.

But allies of the Cabinet minister have downplayed his behaviour as “demanding” and suggested officials should be prepared to work in challenging situations.

Mr Raab, a karate black belt, has fought back against the claims, insisting he has “behaved professionally throughout”.

The 48-year-old, who has been in and out of Government over the past eight years, is no stranger to controversy.

He has ruffled feathers with remarks on feminism and taking the knee in the past, and was demoted from foreign secretary after widespread criticism of his handling of the Afghanistan crisis.

A Foreign Office lawyer before turning to politics, Mr Raab was elected as the MP for Esher and Walton in 2010.

His political career suffered an early setback when Theresa May took offence at his description of some feminists as “obnoxious bigots” in a 2011 article in which he attacked the “equality bandwagon” and said men were getting “a raw deal”.

In 2018, Mrs May appointed Mr Raab housing minister, promoting him to Brexit secretary later that year, though he dramatically quit within months in protest against the then-prime minister’s Brexit policies.

During his unsuccessful run in the race to replace Mrs May as party leader in 2019, Mr Raab played up his image as a Brexit hard man in an attempt to win support from the Tory right.

During the contest, he said he would “probably not” describe himself as a feminist although he was “all for working women making the very best of their potential”.

He threw his weight behind Boris Johnson after his elimination from the contest, and was rewarded with an elevation to foreign secretary and first secretary of state.

When the then-prime minister was admitted to hospital with coronavirus in 2020, Mr Raab found himself effectively leading the Government during some of the darkest days of the pandemic – a role later formalised with the title of deputy prime minister.

In 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, the married father-of-two suggested “taking the knee” was a symbol of subjugation which originated in TV drama Game Of Thrones, adding he only kneels for “the Queen and the missus when I asked her to marry me”.

Mr Raab’s tenure as foreign secretary was blighted by accusations of “missing in action” during the UK’s chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan.

He was on holiday in Crete in August 2021 as the Taliban swept across the country and was seen relaxing on a beach on the Greek island as members of the militant group entered Kabul, although he insisted he was in touch with officials and ministerial colleagues.

A Foreign Office whistleblower also alleged that Mr Raab at one point “declined to make a decision” on whether to admit a group of women’s rights activists “without a properly formatted submission”.

A subsequent demotion in September 2021 saw him heading up the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

He came under fire yet again last year for being on holiday amid a crisis, with criminal barristers voting for an all-out strike as he was on leave in Surrey with his family. Again, aides insisted he was in regular contact with MoJ officials.

As Mr Johnson’s premiership unravelled last summer and a slew of ministers resigned, Mr Raab remained loyal to the scandal-plagued prime minister.

But once Mr Johnson was out the door, Mr Raab threw his backing behind Mr Sunak, a step that later led to him becoming the highest profile casualty of Liz Truss’s Cabinet reshuffle.

But his support for Mr Sunak paid off when the latter replaced Ms Truss in No 10 in October, rewarding his ally with his familiar roles of justice secretary and deputy prime minister.

It is a move Mr Sunak, who was seeking to return stability to the Conservative Party, perhaps regrets as questions over Mr Raab’s conduct continue to swirl.

Some MoJ staff were reportedly worried when he returned to his post and were said to have been given the option to move roles.

Antonia Romeo, the most senior civil servant in the department, was also said to have warned him of the need to treat staff professionally and with respect.

As Justice Secretary, his controversial attempt to overhaul human rights legislation has been condemned by critics as a “systematic gutting of key legal protections”.

The Bill of Rights – which would replace the Human Rights Act which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights in the UK – would add a “healthy dose of common sense” and curtail “abuses” of the system, Mr Raab has said.

The son of a Czech-born Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis in 1938, Mr Raab was brought up in Buckinghamshire and studied law at Oxford University before switching to Cambridge for his masters.

He competed in karate for 17 years, winning two British southern region titles, and making the UK squad.

Mr Raab also enjoyed boxing at university and says it has been “pretty good in terms of preparing me for other big moments”, although “nothing has ever wracked me with nerves quite the same way”.

The senior Tory denied claims, made by his former diary secretary in 2018, that he insisted on the same Pret A Manger lunch every day.

The “Dom Raab special” apparently consisted of a chicken Caesar and bacon baguette, Superfruit Pot and a Vitamin Volcano smoothie.

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