Rutnam’s refusal to go quietly leaves Priti Patel facing tough questions | Politics

There was never a question of whether Sir Philip Rutnam would leave the Home Office following briefings against him by government aides. The only question was how, and if one of Whitehall’s most senior civil servants would do so quietly.

Rutnam’s explosive resignation statement, in which he effectively accused the home secretary of lying and of bullying staff, spectacularly killed off Cabinet Office hopes of a discreet resolution. It raised questions not just about Priti Patel’s behaviour but about Boris Johnson’s government and whether it can force through a legislation-heavy Brexit whilst confronting the civil service.

Government aides believed on Thursday that they could smooth over the dispute and keep Rutnam onboard for at least a few weeks more. Discussions were still taking place between Rutnam’s union, the FDA, and the Cabinet Office late on Friday night. A payoff had been offered, which would have been overseen by the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill.

But Rutnam’s resignation and vow to sue for constructive dismissal means Priti Patel will be forced to defend her management style and say whether she had a role in the briefings against him.

They had clashed not just over Patel’s management of staff and demanding nature but also over the workload being placed on the department. The Home Office is one of the busiest Brexit delivery departments in Whitehall, drawing plans for up a new immigration system and border inspection regime and managing the settlement scheme for 3.2 million EU citizens in the UK.

It is also working on new rules on how to cooperate with the EU on security and crime-fighting, as well as bringing in new IT systems to manage all the projects. All of it must be up and running at the latest by the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December, which Johnson has refused to extend.

Insiders said Rutnam had put forward concerns about the workload. Patel’s aides briefed one newspaper that he was “Eeyore”, a reference to the ponderous, negative donkey from Winnie the Pooh.

Johnson’s key aide Dominic Cummings will also face pressure to explain his role at the heart of this scandal. Questions will be asked about whether this could be considered the second resignation he has been involved in this month, following Sajid Javid’s decision to step down as chancellor.

Cummings has made no secret of his plans to shake up Whitehall and has previously complained at how difficult it is to remove unwanted civil servants. As reports of tensions between Rutnam and Patel emerged 10 days ago, No 10 offered support for Patel but said nothing about Rutnam.

One Whitehall source said: “Rutnam’s advisers may well want to know whether Cummings signed off a statement released by No 10 last week which backed Priti Patel as home secretary and the civil service as a whole but pointedly refused to offer support to Rutnam.”

Once this statement was released, it was obvious to seasoned observers that Rutnam would leave.

Rutnam’s statement made it clear he believed he had made efforts to reach out to Patel and had been met by a refusal to engage. Sources say Patel had refused to meet him for more than a week after the reports emerged that she was trying to force him out.

In his statement, Rutnam said he expected several more days of briefings against him. Any such briefings may be a mistake. There is a distant possibility that Cummings, Patel and perhaps the prime minister could be asked to appear before an employment tribunal and explain their behaviour under oath.

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