The Priti Patel allegations are turning into a #MeToo moment for the civil service | The civil servant | Opinion

You’re not really supposed to know who we are – the unelected bureaucrats of the UK. That’s how it’s worked since time immemorial – civil servants are supposed to silently get on with it while ministers take the flak. And that’s how we like it.

But this very British convention of public life – like so many others – has been dangerously weakened by Brexit and is now being shredded by an emboldened administration still flexing its muscular majority. It’s now not even controversial that Philip Rutnam is merely one of several senior civil servants on Dominic Cummings’s “shitlist”.

I’m half hoping that Hilary Mantel – who’s already shown she can bring the stories of the most heartless, heretic-torturing government enforcers to life – will one day take on this chapter of history. But until then, it’s difficult to properly describe just how shocked we were by the Home Office permanent secretary’s extraordinary on-camera resignation and characterisation of the home secretary as a liar and architect of an alleged “vicious and orchestrated campaign” against him.

Sure, we’ve seen increasing coverage of the defenestrations of other top civil servants such as Ivan Rogers in Brussels, Kim Darroch in Washington, and the UK borders chief Karen Wheeler. But this is a watershed moment even in a hostile environment that threatens a deluge of them.

More colleagues are now coming forward with further allegations against Patel during her time as an employment minister in 2015. That’s in addition to claims that she, as international development secretary, openly called her staff “fucking useless”. This prompted the Department for International Development’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, to tell his staff: “Our management board has decided to take further action to address bullying, harassment and discrimination in DfID. The recent people survey highlighted that we have more to do.”

“More to do” might be an understatement. The survey Rycroft mentions is a questionnaire that most of the 400,000-strong civil service take part in every year, and which includes questions on the extent of bullying and harassment we experience. The 2018 edition revealed significant problems.

So it might not be a stretch to say that this feels like like a sort of #MeToo moment for the civil service. Those who, like me, have been around government for several years reckon more allegations are on the way. There may be blood.

It probably won’t be Patel’s. For now, an investigation has been promised into whether she has broken the ministerial code, but swift endorsements from Michael Gove – the minister for the Cabinet Office, which will conduct that investigation – and the prime minister suggest the outcome is already secure. The message seems clear: Priti’s safe.

It’s also clear that we have entered a new phase of No 10’s conflict with the civil service: “unprecedented” is a word we are quickly wearing out. Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, declared that “to end up with one of the most senior public servants in the country taking court action against one of the great offices of state shows a shocking level of breakdown in the normal functioning of government”.

She’s right: it is shocking. But civil servants aren’t surprised. While bullying allegations have been mounting up against Patel for years, which she has denied, this is only a part of a “wider pattern of behaviour”, as Rutnam said in his statement.

This goes way beyond bullying. Any of the tens of thousands of civil servants who have strained every sinew to respond to the contradictions and convolutions of Brexit will tell you this has been a conflict years in the making. That the latest and worst skirmish has taken place at the Home Office is symbolic given its prominence as arguably the government’s busiest Brexit-facing department. Even before properly facing down the multiple icebergs of a new border inspection regime, a new immigration system and claims of institutional racism, Brexit has already made the Home Office one of the most hazardous workplaces in government. In 2018-19 alone, 2,102 civil servants at the Home Office took time off work because of mental ill-health – at a cost of more than £12m.

Add to this toxic landscape the presence and tactics of arguably the government’s most combative senior minister, and it should surprise no one where these particular chickens have first come home to roost. Not even the prime minister may be able – even if he wanted – to adequately chlorinate them.

I don’t believe Boris Johnson seeks to actively create a bullying culture inside the civil service. But as the Brexit transition phase comes to an end, he is in danger of creating an enabling environment for the harassment of civil servants who are perceived to not have enough revolutionary zeal to attempt to deliver the impossible. We’ve already seen what happens when civil servants try to be practical about delivering Brexit.

The best and most hopeful thing about Rutnam’s stand was that it showed us the ends do not justify the means. “Moving fast and breaking things” may be a catchy slogan for an emboldened new government in a hurry to “get things done”. But when what is being broken is trust, it’s a strategy that in the long-run will hurt us all.

The civil servant works in a Whitehall department and was part of Operation Yellowhammer

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