David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
No, the resignation of Dominic Raab does not mean that the UK has become “ungovernable” or that it will be “impossible for Ministers to do their job” or that his departure is a victory for “the Remainer blob” or evidence that the public sector is full of “snowflakes”.
The reaction in some quarters to Raab’s departure has been more revealing than the report produced by Adam Tolley. For some, this is not about the specific question as to whether Raab’s management style constituted bullying, but about a conflict between a Government trying to pursue a Conservative agenda and a civil service establishment trying to stop it. Viewed from that perspective, the loss of Raab is a symbolic defeat that must be avenged.
The principal proponent of this view is, of course, Raab himself. He argues that the bar for bullying had been set so low that this would set “the playbook for a small number of officials to target ministers who negotiate robustly on behalf of the country, pursue bold reforms and persevere in holding civil servants to account”. He went on to claim that “if that is now the threshold for bullying in government, it is the people of this country who will pay the price”.
One can see why Raab would want to make this argument. He immediately becomes the victim, more sinned against than sinning, which means that there is little sense that he has left office in disgrace. It seems perfectly possible that his political career – perhaps in the Lords – is not yet finished.
This is not to say that Raab’s protestations are insincere. It is perfectly plausible that he is convinced that elements of the civil service were against him and he is genuinely angry about it. That, after all, appears to have been his state of mind throughout his Ministerial career.
His case has been helped by the fact that the Tolley report was less damning than was expected. But for the accusation relating to his time at the Foreign Office (which, we learn from Raab, related to Brexit negotiations with Spain), he might have been in a position to survive. Tolley is cautious in his wording, refuses to set out the details of the accusations in order to protect confidentiality, and is willing to give Raab the benefit of the doubt on a number of occasions.
The report does, nonetheless, make it clear that Raab was an abrasive Minister who intimidated officials and who was warned repeatedly about his behaviour. Tolley’s view may well have been that it was only evident that Raab crossed the line on a couple of occasions but it is also clear that he was at or near the line as a matter of course.
There are some, of course, who argue that there is where you need to be to get things done. I have previously written elsewhere why I think that is nonsense. Of course, Ministers need to be demanding but this does not require unpleasantness. All that will do is make officials reluctant to challenge policy proposals or share bad news.
Yes, of course Ministers should challenge and question advice but this can be done courteously, as Michael Gove and many others have demonstrated over many years. And if the work really is not up to standard, Ministers can make use of their private office to deliver the message more often than not.
Tolley suggests that had Raab behaved previously as he has done since the report was commissioned in November, no complaints would have been made. Presumably, Raab does not think that he was ineffective for the last five months of his time in office.
There has been some commentary that this matter reveals the lack of resilience amongst younger civil servants and the public sector cannot cope with robustness as it once could. I am sure it is correct to say that standards have changed, but this critique misses a few points. Clearly, some of the complaints came from senior not junior officials. Yes, the test of what constitutes acceptable behaviour from those in positions of responsibility has changed but this is neither unique to the civil service and the public sector and nor is it a bad thing. Where there is an imbalance of power, we should expect high standards from those who could potentially misuse it.
The most consequential argument made by Raab and his supporters is that civil servants sought to thwart his agenda and the complaints about his behaviour should be seen in that context. The risk, therefore, is that officials who do not like the policies of a particular Minister can orchestrate the removal of that Minister on the basis of complaints about their behaviour. Raab highlighted to the BBC what he saw as resistance by “activist” officials to his approach to Brexit and, while at the MoJ, the Bill of Rights Bill and his reforms to parole.
I have no doubt that MoJ officials raised many concerns about the latter two policies. There are, after all, a lot of concerns to raise. The Bill of Rights Bill is likely to lead to more cases being referred directly to the European Court of Human Rights, and will neither satisfy those who think we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights or those who think we should remain within it without putting up obstacles to UK citizens seeking to enforce those rights. It is a project that Raab has pursued consistently whenever he has been appointed to the MoJ, only for it to be dropped as soon as someone else looked at it.
As for his parole reforms, these are causing widespread concerns within the criminal justice system, putting pressure on prison places and resulting in long term offenders being released having not served in an open prison and adjusting to their new freedoms. Reforms were needed to the parole system but were addressed (by me, as it happens) some years ago.
He was, of course, the Minister and, subject to Parliamentary approval and compliance with the law, entitled to pursue these policies – and indeed the MoJ has produced the relevant legislation. But officials would have been absolutely right to challenge and question the practicalities. That is not being obstructive: that is doing their job and a confident Secretary of State should welcome it. It is better to know of any potential risks in a policy before it is announced than after it is implemented.
The same point applies to Brexit. Our departure from the EU created a whole host of problems, some of which Raab may not have quite understood. We already see the blame for Brexit not working out being attributed to the officials who highlighted the difficulties rather than the politicians who created them. There is an audience for this and he is playing to it.
Raab is not a victim of a conspiracy and this incident does not set a precedent which should alarm good Ministers. It is simply about whether a Minister engaged in bullying officials and it was found that on occasion he did. That is all.