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Bully or demanding boss? Raab exit raises questions for ministers

Dominic Raab ended his ministerial career on Friday with an angry volley of criticism at the way he had been driven from office and with claims his designation as a bully would “paralyse” ministers trying to do their jobs.

The UK’s departing deputy prime minister will not get much sympathy from the civil service. Accounts of Raab’s “abrasive” approach are widespread across Whitehall; many officials dreaded having to work with him.

But Raab’s effective sacking raises questions — shared privately by others in senior circles of the governing Conservative party — about the point at which a hard-driving, demanding boss, trying to push through difficult policies, becomes a bully.

The fallout of the affair has only just started and Rishi Sunak, prime minister, is among those anxious to ensure ministers are not restrained in their ability to challenge officials.

“In setting the threshold for bullying so low, this inquiry has set a dangerous precedent,” Raab said in his resignation letter to Sunak, criticising the findings of a report by employment lawyer Adam Tolley KC.

“It will encourage spurious complaints against ministers and have a chilling effect on those driving change on behalf of your government — and ultimately the British people,” Raab wrote.

Dave Penman, head of the FDA civil service union, said there should now be an investigation into a wider culture of bullying in Whitehall in the wake of Raab’s resignation. Downing Street said there would be no such probe.

Penman said his union’s research suggested one in six senior civil servants had witnessed “unacceptable workplace behaviour by a minister” in the past year over 20 government departments.

The government’s ministerial code says bullying will not be tolerated, but does not precisely define what it is. It says that “working relationships, including with civil servants” should be “proper and appropriate”.

Tolley’s report therefore sets a benchmark for the kind of behaviour that could get a minister sacked, given that Sunak effectively concluded Raab had been shown to be a bully.

“You had — rightly — undertaken to resign if the report made any finding of bullying whatsoever,” Sunak wrote to the outgoing Raab. “You have kept your word.”

Tolley investigated eight separate claims of bullying at three departments, but his strongest criticism focused on Raab’s behaviour at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The lawyer concluded the former minister had acted in a way that was intimidating, involving “unreasonably and persistently aggressive conduct” at a work meeting.

“It also involved an abuse or misuse of power in a way that undermines or humiliates. He introduced an unwarranted punitive element,” Tolley concluded. “His conduct was experienced as undermining or humiliating by the affected individual.”

Sunak was clearly uncertain whether Tolley’s conclusions were a sacking offence. Downing Street confirmed the prime minister spoke to the lawyer on Thursday to try to get more detail of what happened.

By Friday morning, when he spoke to Raab, the prime minister was clear his deputy would have to go. But Sunak was uncomfortable with the process and the possible repercussions for other ministers.

Downing Street gave only a lukewarm endorsement of Tolley’s report — calling it “detailed and thorough” — and Raab was given enough time to get out his side of the events before it was published in full.

In a scathing Daily Telegraph article, Raab called Tolley’s report “flawed”, claiming he was the victim of a “Kafkaesque saga” and “trial by media for six months”.

Sunak has asked the Cabinet Office to look at how such grievances are handled in future. “It is clear there have been shortcomings in the historic process,” he wrote to Raab.

Downing Street suggested it wanted to limit the use of historic and previously unreported allegations of misbehaviour to undermine ministers, although Sunak’s spokesman stopped short of saying there should be a time limit.

The spokesman added that Sunak wanted ministers “to be able to ensure accountability, to have high standards, to robustly challenge and examine the work of civil servants and other ministers”.

Some senior Tories have claimed there is a danger that the playing field in Whitehall is tilted too far in favour of officials in the wake of Raab affair. “We can’t have civil servants sacking ministers,” said one Tory official.

Sir Bob Neill, chair of the House of Commons justice committee, said ministers had to be able to press staff in a professional way. “We need to be careful in the way we think about the system,” he said.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, a former cabinet minister, has previously taken a swipe at “snowflakey” civil servants.

But Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government think-tank, said most officials just wanted to do a good job for their minister and country and did not want to go through the pain of making an official complaint.

Rutter said the 47-page Tolley report could now set the terms of engagement between ministers and civil servants and what a “proper and appropriate” relationship looks like.

Raab’s departure was a searing moment for Sunak, who took office last October pledging “integrity, professionalism and accountability” at every level of his government, but who appointed his close ally as deputy prime minister despite allegations swirling about his conduct.

“The big question for the prime minister is why he was so weak that he appointed him in the first place,” said Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. “The second question for the prime minister is why he didn’t sack him.”

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