‘Bullying is never acceptable,” the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said on Thursday in a video to mark anti-bullying week. Unless you are a member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet, that is. Later that day, the findings of an investigation by the government’s independent ethics adviser into allegations of bullying by the home secretary, Priti Patel, were published. It found that she had bullied civil servants and had broken the ministerial code.
But Johnson decided to disregard the findings of this report and keep Patel in post, prompting Sir Alex Allan, the independent adviser on ministerial code, to resign. Conservative ministers and MPs have been sent out on the airwaves to demean themselves by defending the indefensible. They have insulted our intelligence by telling us that because the bullying was “unintentional” it is not a resigning matter; that Patel is “direct” and “passionate” – excuses that bullies have long deployed in defence of unacceptable conduct; that an employee’s poor performance is a “balancing requirement” when considering allegations of bullying. At the heart of their defence is the assumption that bullying is tolerable if perpetrated by a political ally. Neither Johnson nor Patel has acknowledged the finding that she bullied staff or properly apologised to the civil servants she bullied. And there are reports that Johnson put pressure on Allan to water down the conclusions of his report, which No 10 has not denied, a very serious breach of due process.
The government has sent a signal that behaviour not tolerated in a classroom is acceptable from a cabinet minister. Bullying is serious professional misconduct and can have a corrosive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of victims. An independent report last year found that Westminster is populated by bullies from all parties, who can terrorise junior staff with impunity.
The way Johnson has handled this episode is the perfect metaphor for this government’s worldview: the rules are for everyone else, not us. Bullying will be swept under the carpet if you are a Tory minister. It is OK, even commendable, to needlessly break lockdown rules during a pandemic if you are the prime minister’s chief adviser, even if defending him comes at the price of undermining life-saving public health advice.
The government has sent a signal that behaviour that would not be tolerated in a classroom is acceptable from a cabinet minister
Utter contempt for the norms that keep democracy on the road has long defined Johnson’s politics. He has been complicit in spreading disinformation and untruths, from Vote Leave’s assertion that leaving the EU would free up £350m a week for the NHS, to telling voters that remaining in the EU would create a British border with Iraq and Syria. When he couldn’t get his way on Brexit with parliament, he shut it down, an action later ruled unlawful by the supreme court. He used his large majority to drive through legislation that even his own ministers conceded breaks international law. His approach to politics is populist in the extreme: he sees no problem in ripping up the rules and doing long-term damage to public trust in democratic institutions if it works to his short-term political benefit. It has been no different during the pandemic. Last week, the National Audit Office published a report that found suppliers of personal protective equipment were 10 times more likely to win government contracts worth tens and even hundreds of millions of pounds if they were referred by a senior political contact, such as ministers, MPs or members of the House of Lords, breaching public procurement rules. One company run by a married couple who had personal links to a Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, was awarded a Cabinet Office consultancy contract two months after the work had already begun.
And, as we reveal today, the Good Law Project and the Runnymede Trust are seeking a judicial review of the legality of three unpaid appointments the government made to pivotal roles in combating the pandemic. Dido Harding, a Conservative peer and the partner of a Tory MP, was appointed first to chair the government’s test-and-trace service, and later as head of the new National Institute for Health Protection. Kate Bingham, the wife of a Conservative MP, was appointed head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce; and the former Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe was appointed director of testing at the test-and-trace service. None of these posts was publicly advertised. The unpaid nature of these full-time roles would preclude all but those with significant private means from doing them. The Good Law Project contends that the way these appointments were made amounts to indirect discrimination against black and minority ethnic people and people who have a disability.
The legality of these appointments will be decided by the courts. But it speaks volumes about this government’s lack of commitment to diversity that ministers looked no further than their social circles. It is further evidence of a government that regards due process as an optional extra, not just to the detriment of any notion of procedural fairness but also to the end result.
Keeping his bully of a home secretary in post despite her second breach of the ministerial code and appointing his colleagues’ partners to positions of utmost national importance are the latest manifestations of Johnson’s grubby approach to governing. One rule for them, one rule for us: the country suffers the consequences.