Only once has a ConservativeHome contributor gone on to become a civil service whistleblower – at least, as far as I know. His name is Raffy Marshall, and he is my godson.
He was unusual in conduct as well as background. Whistleblowers tend to go the media with their story. He went instead to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee – to tell part of the tale of the Foreign Office’s disastrous handling of Britain’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. He was serving in the department at the time. The Foreign Secretary in post was Dominic Raab.
Raab himself describes his working style as “inquisitorial, direct, impatient and fastidious”. Others at the time and since have substituted controlling, menacing, narrow and counter-productive. His working methods are certainly unusual: Adam Tolley’s report notes his insistence on receiving papers in a set format.
That report was into complaints about Raab’s conduct at the request of the Prime Minister. It’s worth saying at the start that Tolley was investigating only because no Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests was in place at the time – a legacy of Boris Johnson’s premiership.
Tolley is a distinguished KC, but his report was not a legal proceeding: he says himself that “the investigation was not governed by strict rules of evidence appropriate to court proceedings” and that “concepts applicable in legal proceedings such as the ‘burden of proof’ and the ‘standard of proof’ did not apply as such”.
Had Laurie Magnus, now serving as Independent Adviser, had the opportunity to conduct the report both Raab and Tolley might have been spared the shadow boxing that followed publication about its procedure. But the report stands or falls not so much by the process that produced it as the conclusion it reached.
The central question Tolley had to answer was whether or not Raab is a bully, and the definition of bullying he settled on, drawn from a recent High Court case, included “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour” – regardless of whether or not the perpetrator intends it or is aware of it.
The court case in question concerned claims of bullying by Priti Patel, and while this definition may be acceptable to a judge it will surely baffle a layman. Bullying, surely, requires intent. If Rishi Sunak is at fault over to Raab’s fate, it’s because he indicated to Tolley that he was content for the report “to adopt the approach to bullying explained by the High Court”.
Either to support the Prime Minister, or else because he felt obliged to resign if found to have been a bully (even with this curious definition in play) – or perhaps for both reasons – Raab quit. To cut to the chase, Tolley drew no conclusion himself, but found against Raab on two out of 15 complaints, saying of one of them that it involved an abuse or misuse of power.
Had Raab not himself decided to resign (and his friends insist that he jumped and wasn’t pushed) would sacking have been proportionate – especially since the claimed abuse of power was a rebuke by Raab, then Foreign Secretary, to a civil service negotiator with Spain over Gibraltar who, he says, “had gone beyond the democratic mandate set by Cabinet”?
And whatever your view, shouldn’t what’s sauce for the goose be sauce for the gander? Raab claims that, on returning to the Ministry of Justice as Secretary of State, private secretaries who had worked with him previously had been removed – whether they wished to leave or not.
According to Raab, the senior civil servant who ordered the removal said they were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and said they had Stockholm Syndrome. Tolley himself finds that some of the MOJ complainants “had never met [Raab at all] but were seeking to support their colleagues”.
He also says that some MOJ complaints “focused only to a limited extent on the DPM himself, with references also to Ministers (plural) and other civil servants”. Which other Ministers and which civil servants? Were civil servants content to work for Raab removed, and if so why? On what basis were complaints made about Raab by people who’d never even met him?
Perhaps the Public Affairs and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee will take an interest. But whether it does or not, Raab’s resignation from the Cabinet is unlikely to be the end of the matter for the civil service, any more than Gary Lineker’s return to Match of the Day is likely to be the end of the matter for the BBC.
Some of Raab’s friends claim that civil servants from the former Brexit department who complained about him were linked to Olly Robbins. I don’t believe for a moment that all civil servants were anti-Brexit or that those who were sought to ensure it didn’t happen – though Raab, as Brexit Secretary, and Robbins, as Theresa May’s negotiator, didn’t see eye to eye about how to leave.
Rather, it seems to me that the roots of the Tolley Report reach back to “expenses”. It was a calamity for Parliament, and the reputation of MPs, but an opportunity for regulators, old and new: IPSA, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Independent Adviser, and so on.
Indeed, one way of viewing the recent row over Rishi Sunak’s wife’s childcare business is as the Commissioner parking his tanks on the Adviser’s lawn, in a bid to gain oversight of Ministerial as well as Parliamentary interests. Meanwhile, civil servants can’t have helped but clock the fall in the standing of politicians.
Yes Minister was funny because it was true – not least because while Sir Humphrey would pit his wits against Jim Hacker’s, he never questioned the latter’s legitimacy. I’m not sure that’s always the case now. Consider Sue Gray’s attempts, now legendary in government circles, to stop Ministers moving Section 35 of the Scotland Act.
The rise of the politician as villain has been paralled by the rise of the whistleblower as hero – at least to some: Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange. The Raab complainants presumably saw themselves as whistleblowers holding power to account. Which returns me to the whistleblower I know.
Raffy Marshall’s evidence to the Select Committee was sometimes critical of the civil service as well as specifically so of Raab himself – for example, arguing that work-life balance was a cause of staff shortages during the Afghan debacle. Whatever your take, he was putting his finger on a culture change no less important than those political ones (Brexit, expenses).
In terms of working practice, today’s Sudan crisis suggests that the Foreign Office has learned nothing from the Afghan failure – with the most senior civil servants responsible apparently working from home. In terms of political impartiality, it is striking that claims of bullying have tended to be levelled at Ministers working on home affairs broadly and sometimes, border control.
Raab claims that Tolley’s report will encourage “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”. Whether he’s right or not, Ministers will listen. As may any of their Labour shadows fearful of getting the same treatment after the next election.
If politicians come to believe that the civil service is preoccupied with speaking truth to power at the expense of doing its job, Francis Maude-type solutions will be imposed, regardless of which party is in power: more political appointees, more independent advice. Tolley’s report may point to a downfall rather different from Raab’s – and much bigger.