UK: Dominic Raab's political career may be over, but he's combative as ever

Bullying in politics or government is not defined, but there are boundaries in relation to bullying in workplaces, where it is defined as 'behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended'

Read more...
AFP file

By Prasun Sonwalkar/Letter from London

Published: Fri 21 Apr 2023, 7:50 PM

Last updated: Fri 21 Apr 2023, 11:10 PM

It boils down to standards and reference points in public life that societies set for themselves: What may be considered normal behaviour in one may be frowned upon in another. The British are the first to lament how things have been on a slippery slope in Britain in recent years and decades, but some long-established civility norms remain. Such norms, courtesies and decent behaviour are most noticed by visitors: on the London Underground, where you are routinely offered a seat even if you are not elderly or pregnant; in post offices or other public spaces where officials patiently help you out; or when holding doors to allow you to pass or enter; or apologising on buses or trains if asked to lower the volume emanating from cheap headphones.

Some such norms remain in politics, too, amidst growing cynicism, ennui and worse about British politics. In government, the ethics and standards of behaviour are set out in a detailed Ministerial Code that all ministers are expected to follow.

One of the most political career-destroying allegations is ‘lying’, at a time when social media and hot mics pick up the seemingly most innocuous remarks. Not speaking the truth in parliament raises many hackles, inquiries, reprimand, and punishment for misleading parliament, and could even lead to a recall petition from voters. The most recent high-profile individual who got into serious trouble over this allegation was Boris Johnson, who as the prime minister, made assertions and claims in the House of Commons that were later shown to be different from reality in relation to ‘Partygate’, or parties in Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns.

Advertising
Advertising

Johnson’s resignation as prime minister perplexed many visitors and others following British politics abroad. Those used to a different set of norms in public life were astounded that so much energy, money and bandwidth were expended on ‘Partygate’, when the allegations against Johnson would hardly raise any concern elsewhere, let alone make headlines for days, weeks and months on end.

Today, there was another example of how long-established civil norms continue to influence political careers. Dominic Raab, one of the big beasts in the Rishi Sunak government – deputy prime minister, Justice Secretary, and who was the acting prime minister when Johnson was hospitalised from Covid – resigned following allegations by several civil servants who worked with him in different departments that he bullied them over the years. Besides lying, bullying is another red line in public life and workplaces, where employers need to comply with several pieces of legislation to ensure proper working conditions, including grievance redressal systems to prevent bullying, among other malpractices.

Raab, a feisty Tory who was a lawyer before entering politics, pushed back against the allegations, but ultimately had to resign following an inquiry report into the allegations. His version has been that he is a hard taskmaster, expects officials to deliver, but has consistently denied the charge of being a bully. His resignation letter was seen as a non-apology and a sorry-not-sorry statement. He wrote in his resignation letter: “I am genuinely sorry for any unintended stress or offence that any officials felt, as a result of the pace, standards and challenge that I brought to the Ministry of Justice…In setting the threshold for bullying so low, this inquiry has set a dangerous precedent. 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”.

It is also instructive to recall that a report on a minister breaching the Ministerial Code does not always lead to resignation. After such a report is submitted, the final decision is of the prime minister, who may or may not accept the report and ask or not ask the minister concerned to resign. In Raab’s case, he resigned, was not asked by Sunak to do so.

In 2020, there was a similar investigation into the behaviour of Priti Patel during her time in government. Alex Allan, Prime Minister Johnson’s then adviser on ministerial standards, reported that Patel had not always treated civil servants with “consideration and respect”, concluding that “her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals. To that extent, her behaviour has been in breach of the ministerial code, even if unintentionally.”

Johnson, as the arbiter of the Ministerial Code, then said that Patel was “unaware” of the impact she had and he was “reassured” that she was “sorry for inadvertently upsetting those with whom she was working”. After “weighing up all the factors”, he concluded the code had not been breached, and allowed Patel to continue in office.

Bullying in politics or government is not defined, but there are boundaries in relation to bullying in workplaces, where it is defined as “behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended”. Acas, a dispute resolution service, says that bullying behaviour can be "malicious or insulting", or an abuse of power that "undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone". It can be regular or a one-off, happen in person or online, it can be at work or at a work-related event such as a party, and it may not be obvious.

Bullying can range from being very direct, such as verbal or physical abuse, to being subtle, such as excluding people and isolating them. Bullying could include: a colleague spreading rumours, or putting you down in meetings; your boss giving you more work than everyone else; someone putting humiliating comments on social media; a manager offering career development opportunities or training to others that you are denied; a boss not giving you chances to show your skills or ignoring you. It is not the case that such boundaries are always followed in workplaces, but ask any non-British professional who comes to work in Britain: the focus on putting in place systems to prevent such behaviour and the basic sense of civility and decency makes a refreshing change from working conditions in other locations.

Given the fate of politicians who resigned in similar situations, Raab’s resignation may signal the end of his political career, with Liberal Democrats closing in on his majority in the Esher and Walton constituency, as the 2024 election draws near, but bearing a grievance against the inquiry process, there are every indications that he will continue to fight the fight.

[The writer is a senior journalist based in London.]

ALSO READ:

Prasun Sonwalkar/Letter from London

Published: Fri 21 Apr 2023, 7:50 PM

Last updated: Fri 21 Apr 2023, 11:10 PM

Recommended for you