Priti Patel, the home secretary, is a bully. Her defence is that she had not the wits about her to notice. If she had any shame Ms Patel would resign from a high-profile, high-pressure job. But she is unembarrassed by the findings of a Cabinet Office investigation that found she had breached the ministerial code. Previous prime ministers would have sent her packing, but not Boris Johnson. He would rather lose Sir Alex Allan, his Downing Street ethics adviser who made the critical judgment, than a cabinet minister who is a Brexiter popular with her party’s hang-’em-and-flog-’em base.
This episode reveals Mr Johnson to be a shrunken figure holed up in No 10 and scared of a party he can barely control. His attempt to reset his prime ministership after weeks of infighting has failed. Instead of restoring civility and reclaiming a liberal agenda, Mr Johnson confirmed that he is a brazen leader who does not recognise the supremacy of facts. This when polls show that British voters do not trust the prime minister to deal with a pandemic that is claiming hundreds of lives a day and when he is expected to make a crunch Brexit decision that will shape the country’s future.
Sir Alex’s resignation is no full stop to the conversation about Ms Patel. Lord Evans, the chair of the committee on standards in public life and a former head of MI5, says the arrangements to investigate and respond to breaches of the ministerial code will now be reviewed. Sir Alex’s report should be published in full. Ms Patel’s bearing at work has been questioned before. Complaints about her were made at her former ministries of welfare and international development. Her former permanent secretary at the Home Office is suing the department for constructive dismissal. Ms Patel denies any wrongdoing.
The prime minister’s behaviour raises important questions about the erosion of democracy and honesty in public life. The lack of public accountability that Mr Johnson merrily espouses is corrosive. The prime minister’s moral authority is draining away. Those in the workplace, or perhaps the classroom, might think that they can admit to bullying but get away with it because they can claim they didn’t mean to “shout and swear”.
Mr Johnson sees one rule for him and his gang and another for the rest of the country. Ms Patel is a serial offender. She was brought back into government by the prime minister after Theresa May sacked her for unauthorised and unpublicised meetings with Israeli government officials. She returned to Mr Johnson’s cabinet on grounds of ideology rather than competence. No wonder she can be overwhelmed by events.
Mr Johnson has jeopardised public trust in the government when it is needed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. The sad reality is that the social contract between politicians and the public is being torn apart because Mr Johnson lacks the conscience to do the right thing at the right time.