Boris Johnson is facing escalating pressure to launch an urgent investigation into bullying allegations against Priti Patel after the unprecedented resignation of the top civil servant at the Home Office.
In an explosive statement to cameras, Sir Philip Rutnam effectively accused the home secretary of lying, claimed she had created an atmosphere of “fear” and said he would sue the government for constructive dismissal.
The Home Office permanent secretary insisted he had been the “target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” that had left him with no alternative but to resign from government after a career spanning 33 years.
He claimed the Cabinet Office had offered him a “financial settlement that would have avoided this outcome”, but decided to pursue a claim in the courts – a public battle that could further embarrass the government.
Sir Keir Starmer, the frontrunner in the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn next month, said the prime minister is “losing a grip on his government”, and called an urgent investigation by the Cabinet Office into the bullying allegations. “The home secretary has a duty to come to parliament on Monday to explain the allegations made about her own conduct,” he said.
It comes after weeks of simmering tensions between Ms Patel, who was appointed home secretary last summer, and officials at the Home Office amid allegations of bullying, which she denies, and claims she is distrusted by intelligence chiefs. One report suggested the cabinet minister had tried to remove Sir Philip from the department after a series of rows.
Ms Patel is now facing demands to appear in the House of Commons on Monday to answers the allegations levelled at her after Sir Philip said he also had reports her conduct included “shouting and swearing” and “belittling people” in the department.
Describing the allegations as “extremely concerning”, his rival in the contest, Rebecca Long-Bailey, added: “Boris Johnson must address these allegations immediately.”
Yvette Cooper, the chair of parliament’s influential Home Affairs Committee, urged Mr Johnson to “get a grip” of the situation and echoed the call for an urgent probe.
She said: “Serious allegations have been made against the home secretary and these will now be pursued through an employment tribunal. However, tribunals can take months. We cannot afford to have a dysfunctional and distracted Home Office while this tribunal is going on. The work of the Home Office and home secretary is far too important for that.
“The prime minister and the cabinet secretary therefore have a duty to investigate these allegations to a much faster timetable so that the normal functioning of the Home Office can be restored”.
Another Labour MP, Stephen Doughty, added that Ms Patel’s future was now “in question”, adding: “It shows clearly how toxic and dysfunctional relationships have become at the heart of this government.”
Delivering his extraordinary statement on Saturday morning, Sir Philip insisted claims he had briefed the media in recent weeks against Ms Patel were “completely false”.
“The home secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office,” he said. “I regret I do not believe her. She has not made the effort I would expect to disassociate herself from the comments.”
“Even despite this campaign, I was willing to effect a reconciliation with the home secretary – as requested by the cabinet secretary on behalf of the prime minister. But despite my efforts to engage with her, Priti Patel has made no effort to engage with me to discuss this.
“I believe that these events give me very strong grounds to claim constructive unfair dismissal, and I will be pursuing that claim in the courts.”
Addressing allegations of bullying against Ms Patel, he went on: “My experience has been extreme, but I consider there is evidence that it was part of a wider pattern of behaviour. One of my duties as permanent secretary was to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our 35,000 people.
“I have received allegations that her conduct has included shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands – behaviour that created fear and that needed some bravery to call out.”
A statement from the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, Sir Mark Sedwill, thanked the senior civil servant for his “long and dedicated career of public service”, while announcing that Shona Dunn will become acting permanent secretary at the Home Office with immediate effect.
Responding to his statement, Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, the senior public servants’ union, said the resignation “demonstrates once again the destructive consequences of anonymous briefings against public servants who are unable to publicly defend themselves”.
He added: “This cowardly practice is not only ruining lives and careers, but at a time when the Home Office is being tasked with delivering a demanding government agenda on immigration, and preparing for a public health emergency, it has diverted energy and resource in to responding to unfounded accusations from sources claiming to be allies of the home secretary.
“The FDA has supported Sir Philip throughout this period and will continue to support him in his claim for constructive dismissal. He had a choice to resign and go quietly with financial compensation. Instead he has chosen to speak out against the attacks on public servants.”
Ms Patel has not yet commented on Sir Philip’s resignation and No 10 declined to respond when approached by The Independent.
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