“Standards in public life” has become such a preposterous phrase in Boris Johnson’s government that the prime minister’s adviser on standards has this morning resigned. Sir Alex Allan informed the prime minister that Priti Patel’s behaviour had breached the ministerial code. The prime minister then informed the country that the ministerial code had not been breached. Sir Alex has since departed; I’m sure he wishes the government’s much-vaunted “reset” all the best.
Meanwhile calls for tougher sentencing are growing, after a repeat offender was let off with a warning despite having been found guilty of another serious breach. The case will add to a sense that the UK is a “soft touch” country where recidivists are not simply allowed but effectively encouraged. In a move likely to cause outrage, activist do-gooders further insisted that an offence being possibly “unintentional” means it didn’t count. The implications of that remark for the wider justice system are “catastrophic and a scandal”, says whichever rentaquote Conservative backbencher answers the phone first.
The above is, arguably, one way to frame the home secretary’s latest violation of the ministerial code, given that Priti Patel is the market leader in That Sort of Talk if it comes to anyone else. “I think it’s all about us taking personal responsibility,” explained Patel back in the summer, asked what she’d do if she saw her neighbours breaking the rule of six. “If I saw something that I thought was inappropriate then, quite frankly, I would effectively call the police.”
While Priti Patel would snitch on you for having seven people in your back garden, we do know she wouldn’t call the police if she saw her neighbours breaking international law – in fact she’d vote for it in the House of Commons. She wouldn’t call the police if she saw someone making statements that targeted lawyers in a way that could inspire acts of violence, because it would mean ratting on herself. And she certainly wouldn’t “take personal responsibility” for behaviour for which she was personally responsible. Why bother? It’s certainly not required by her boss, who doesn’t even take personal responsibility for an unspecified number of his own children.
Anyway, it’s national anti-bullying week, so here’s a quick recap of how the home secretary is leading the way. A Cabinet Office report into multiple allegations of bullying against Priti Patel has reportedly found compelling evidence thereof. Apparently this breach of the ministerial code “may not have been intentional”. Try using that excuse for breaking any of the other rules to which Patel demands full adherence, and see how you get on.
Despite supposedly being unable to see aggressive behaviour in herself, Patel is expert at falsely accusing others of it. When the home affairs select committee chair, Yvette Cooper, repeatedly wrote to ask if she would submit to scrutiny, Patel replied she was “disappointed at the increasingly adversarial tone of our exchanges”. Meanwhile, one of Patel’s senior officials was reportedly so disappointed by the increasingly adversarial tone of his interactions with the home secretary that he went so far as to collapse after one of them.
When he took office last year, Boris Johnson rewrote the foreword to the ministerial code, and the start of his fourth paragraph clearly states: “There must be no bullying and no harassment.” And yet, after an arcane and ludicrously inscrutable investigation into Patel’s time in three departments, it turns out there has been. As the former Treasury permanent secretary Nick Macpherson glossed the event: “In my experience, things have to be very bad indeed for a Cabinet Office inquiry to find fault in a minister – the system is rigged to conclude the contrary.”
But as it turns out: so what? Priti Patel is, in many ways, the perfect politician for an age when “taking responsibility” means precisely the opposite. It is a great mantra of the right that individuals need to take responsibility for their lives, but this is a government of people who steadfastly refuse to. Even in this specific case, Johnson is said to have delayed reading the completed report for months because he didn’t want to have to deal with it. He doesn’t even want to take responsibility for taking responsibility.
Everyone else in this country knows that if they were formally found by their employer to have bullied people in the workplace, they would be put out of work. Yet the home secretary – the home secretary! – will not meet this standard employment fate. She gets a vote of confidence from the prime minister. Downing Street clearly decided it would be worth having to eat shit for a couple of days rather than look “weak” by sacking Patel, and imagined the story would die down swiftly enough for them to have “got away with it”.
But they haven’t. Every case like this chips away at the remaining vestiges of respect people have for politicians. Every instance of someone – simply because they are a politician – getting away with behaviour that people know wouldn’t be tolerated at their own workplace erodes something much bigger than trust in the individual politician.
What is the plan for getting any of this back? This is the age of Trumpism and Zuckerbergism, where already frayed moral codes in public life are judged vastly less profitable than hyperpartisan loyalties. What we see now with Patel is a corrosive extension of what we saw with John Bercow – where many appeared to overlook the multiple allegations of bullying against the then Speaker because they thought he was on their side on Brexit. Yet there is nothing remotely heroic about either Bercow’s or Patel’s alleged conduct to their supposed underlings.
It’s notable that many will shame irrelevant ordinary people every day on social media, and these people often lose their jobs for comparatively small transgressions. Yet despite this – or perhaps, under convenient cover of this – politicians are much more impervious to shame than they ever were. You can’t seem to cancel a minister, and they almost never resign any more. Political public life has become so unmoored from the earthly sphere that ministers need no longer fear the same consequences as the people they are elected to serve. Or, to put it another way: shame is for little people.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist