The UK government will sound an alarm on all mobile phones at 3pm on Sunday to test the country’s emergency alerts system. But the political alarm should have sounded for prime minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday morning the very moment that the report on bullying allegations against his deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, landed on his desk.
Its damaging conclusions about Raab’s “abrasive” behaviour have brought the sense of calm that had sprang up around Sunak’s premiership to a juddering halt. The messy and delayed official response by Sunak to the report in the 24 hours that followed his receipt of it have also raised old questions over the prime minister’s political judgment.
Raab, who always denied any wrongdoing, had promised to resign if the report by barrister Adam Tolley found he had bullied civil servants. He duly did so on Friday morning, after Tolley upheld a few of the litany of complaints against him. Tolley’s detailed findings include that Raab’s behaviour towards officials was at times “intimidating” and “humiliating” and constituted “an abuse of power”.
It found he did not shout or swear at officials, but often insulted and demeaned them by, for example, preventing them from speaking by using the patronising ‘talk to the hand’ gesture in front of other people at meetings. It said he “ought to have known” that such behaviour is unacceptable.
Yet the report also found that some other civil servants had engaged in a co-ordinated behaviour to try to damage him. This gave Raab an opening to undermine the conclusion that he is a bully.
In what now looks like a co-ordinated response designed to seize the narrative before the report was released to the public, Sunak delayed making any comment until about 11.30am this morning. Instead, he sought advice and then spoke to Raab over the phone.
The delay, the private chat with the prime minister, and the knowledge that the report would be released at about 11.30am gave Raab the time to get his retaliation in first before anybody knew the detail of the findings. At 9.30am, he released his resignation later. It was two pages long but could be summed up in three words: sorry, not sorry.
Raab said he disagreed with the findings that he had engaged in bullying behaviour and cast himself as the victim of a conspiracy by civil servants. He said the report set a “dangerous precedent” and would “paralyse” the ability of ministers to hold civil servants to account.
Two hours later, after rolling news coverage had been dominated solely by Raab’s interpretation of the wrongs against him, Sunak released his own reply. It was heavy on praise for his now-former deputy PM and justice secretary, and light on empathy for the civil servants whom Tolley had found were humiliated by Raab. Only after this did everybody else see the report.
Raab is the third minister Sunak has lost in six months, following the sacking of former Tory chairman Nadhim Zahawi over his tax affairs and the resignation of former cabinet minister Gavin Williamson, who was also forced out over bullying allegations.
Yet the exit of Raab is, by far, the most damaging for the prime minister. He has lost a close ally and, by appearing to give Raab space to undermine the report instead of simply condemning the bullying, he has left a wound to fester among officials in the Whitehall system which he relies upon to get things done.