Emily Carver is a broadcaster and commentator.
Dominic Raab’s resignation was met with glee by those who would love nothing more than to see the back of him. Since the Tolley report into his conduct was published, he’s been labelled an abject failure of a politician and told his political career is over.
But is this a premature assessment? Could Tolley’s findings actually play to his advantage and serve in his favour longer-term?
Raab is clearly deeply frustrated by the way he was forced to resign from his role in government – quite understandably so. As he made clear in his resignation letter, his article in the Daily Telegraph and in subsequent media interviews, he feels he was unfairly treated by the inquiry process, that the threshold for bullying was set far too low, and that there are “activist” civil servants targeting ministers.
His assessment will be convincing to many. He may appear down and out right now, but when it comes to the Conservative Party faithful and potential Conservative voters, Raab may well have gone up in their estimation. A comeback could very much be on the cards.
Bizarrely, Raab’s run in with the civil service has somewhat managed to rehabilitate his image from that of a lazy, workshy minister, who didn’t feel the inclination to cut a family holiday short as we handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban, to a politician obsessed with high standards.
Back then, Boris Johnson stood by him and Ben Wallace defended him. But these interventions did little to change the prevailing view that Raab had failed to put his duties as a minister first- so providing the Opposition with plenty of easy attack lines (in one particularly feisty PMQs session of the deputies, his counterpart Angela Rayner ordered him to “get back to his sun lounger”).
Fast forward to now, and he comes across, to many, as a man who holds himself to unbelievably high standards and works exceptionally long hours and expects everyone else to do the same.
Some will continue to insist that the report has shown him to be something of a tyrant, but the debate that has ensued over whether or not he was a bully has had the effect of drawing attention to his high standards and how seriously he takes his role, as well as to his criticisms of the culture within the civil service.
Many, for example, will agree with his assessment that the threshold for bullying has been set too low for proper ministerial oversight. It’s worth remembering that he was not found to have sworn or shouted, nor to have physically intimidated anyone working with him.
His concerns that this low bar for what constitutes bullying sets a “dangerous precedent” will encourage spurious complaints against Ministers, and act as an obstacle for reform, will chime with many people’s perceptions that the civil service can act as a block on bold or controversial policy reform, from Brexit to human rights reform.
Indeed, the handling of the allegations may even reflect how some people feel in their own workplace, where an excessive HR-ification has taken place (according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the HR profession has grew four-times faster in the past decade than the general UK workforce).
Add to that the strong feeling that Raab’s departure is an ousting, and his departure may bolster his popularity, and highlight a development that poltiicians of all parties should be wary of. As Graham Stringer, a Labour MP, told GB News: “I find effectively civil servants sacking a minister, which is what has happened, quietly disturbing because one of the great myths in our political life is that we have a non-political civil service”.
Further, the claim that there are “activist” officials within the civil service who seek to obstruct reform, from Brexit to human rights, will resonate with many Conservative voters who have long been concerned that the it is stacked with people ideologically opposed to the Government.
It also provides a good excuse for failing Tory ministers (and possibly Sunak himself) to point at the civil service and blame them for the fact their policies haven’t got off the ground.
Fundamentally, it comes down to what people find more believable: can civil servants be workshy, obstructive and politically motivated, or was Raab a tyrannical bully?
Of course, both can be true and both could be false. But those who think Raab is finished should think again. I suspect this bullying saga will not hang around his neck like a ball and chain, it could even sit neatly on his lapel like a badge of honour.