With exquisite timing and no hint of irony, the Prime Minister celebrated National Anti-Bullying Week by giving full-throated support to his Home Secretary, Priti Patel who had just been found in breach of the ministerial code by a Cabinet Office inquiry into, well, bullying.
I often wonder how effective these awareness-raising days or weeks are in shining a light on specific issues, causes or conditions. While undoubtedly well-intentioned, sometimes it feels like they offer the public permission to ignore the topic for the rest of the year.
Boris Johnston’s unique take on marking anti-bullying week, however, takes this to different level. Certainly his actions in support of Ms Patel make it impossible for any future government initiative on bullying or harassment to be taken remotely seriously.
I know all too well that in politics generally, and government in particular, the working environment can be stressful. The stakes and expectations both run high, while relationships can be combustible, and not just between those seen to be on opposing sides of the political divide. The same may legitimately be said of many workplaces, but there are few that successfully rise to the top of politics who do not possess an ego and ambition at the XL end of the scale.
Yet those downplaying Ms Patel behaviour as simply that of a no-nonsense Minister knocking a sclerotic civil service into shape misread the situation to a dangerous degree.
There is a reason Boris Johnson, upon taking office, redrafted the ministerial code to make clear that “there must be no bullying and no harassment”. In any working environment, a zero tolerance of such behaviour is really the only way of convincing people they are valued and part of a team. Safeguards should exist in all workplaces, with breaches taken seriously and serious breaches leading to dismissal.
In this instance, however, having refused for months even to read the report by his independent adviser on standards and the ministerial code, Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister then dismissed its findings out of hand. Ultimately, Sir Alex’s report did result in someone leaving their post, but sadly it was the report’s author whose position had been fatally undermined by Mr Johnston’s unwillingness to take responsibility.
Such disregard for his own ministerial code not only corrodes the already tarnished reputation of Mr Johnston and his government; it undermines further public confidence in politics as a whole. Despite the recent departure of Dominic Cummings, it seems that rules on bullying, like those on Covid, only apply to “the little people”.
Let’s not forget, Priti Patel is the same Minister who endlessly calls for tougher prison sentences, decries ‘soft touch’ justice and gleefully warned her neighbours she wouldn’t hesitate to report them to the police if they broke Covid restrictions. Presumably, she was more relaxed about them bullying other neighbours or, indeed, breaking international law by ignoring their treaty obligations!
Anyone labouring under the misapprehension that such behaviour is confined to Westminster politics, should think again. Peter Housden, the Scottish Government’s previous Permanent Secretary, told the parliamentary inquiry into the handling of allegations of sexual harassment (and worse) made against Alex Salmond that he knew of the former First Minister’s “bullying and intimidatory behaviour”. Mr Housden went on to reflect that formal complaints against Mr Salmond may not have come forward due to a “gross imbalance of power”.
Insights like this are certainly troubling. They also, though. beg questions as to why apparently it did not occur to Mr Housden to take action to deal with behaviour that is as much against the ministerial code in Edinburgh as it is in London. For Scottish Government civil servants, the message seems hardly more reassuring than it is for their counterparts in the Home Office.
Meantime, following his triumph in marking National Anti-Bullying Week, the Prime Minister will no doubt be turning his attention to how he might give forthcoming initiatives the “Boris Johnston treatment”. With that in mind, I feel it only fair to point out that Older Driver Safety Awareness Week is coming up shortly. More mature readers of The Orcadian may wish to stay off the roads for a while. You have been warned!