Priti Patel and her spineless civil servants: Who’s bullying whom? – David Behrens

They’re bringing back Spitting Image, we learned this week – but can they make the puppets any more grotesque than Whitehall’s real-life caricatures? If they’re going to satirise the shenanigans at the Home Office in particular, they’d be better off with a Punch and Judy show.

Home Secretary Priti Patel

The revival will do Boris Johnson no harm. He proved long ago, on Have I Got News For You, that he didn’t mind being sent up. In any case, satire has always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with politicians – from Mike Yarwood and Harold Wilson to the masculine portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the original Spitting Image. Both emerged stronger and more likeable.

But what of Priti Patel? The beleaguered Home Secretary is caught in a hailstorm of abuse from her officials, whom she stands accused of bullying. Yet it is a falling-out that says more about the culture of the Civil Service than about her.

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Sir Philip Rutnam, her most senior mandarin until he quit last weekend, emerges with the least dignity, having bleated about the “vicious and orchestrated campaign” he says Ms Patel orchestrated against him.

Boris Johnson at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons

Is that bullying, though, or just an old-fashioned upbraiding? Isn’t it the Home Secretary’s job to insist that her subordinates carry out instructions in the way she wishes, whether they like it or not? If Sir Philip disliked his new boss strongly enough, he was free to walk out and attempt to ply his trade elsewhere – just as in any other workplace.

But therein lies the fatal flaw within the Civil Service: no-one expects to have to leave. It’s a job for life.

In today’s competitive work market, this sense of entitlement is an anachronism, and Ministers are well within their rights to challenge it. They would be ineffective if they did not.

Sir Philip’s petulant press conference, at which he announced a constructive dismissal claim against the Government, betrayed the degree to which senior civil servants have considered themselves untouchable. The proper response to his lawsuit would have been the appearance of a security man to show him the door, not a clamour for his boss’s head on a spike.

But there was no-one there to pop his pomposity. “I hope that my stand may help in maintaining the quality of government,” he went on, self-righteously. That’s a civil servant for you: striving to preserve the status quo at all costs. He hadn’t grasped that the quality needed improving, not maintaining.

Even the union which represented him had a supercilious air about it. Its full name is the Association of First Division Civil Servants – a contradiction in terms, surely.

Sir Philip had been in the service for 33 years and clearly planned to remain there. Some might see this as loyalty; others as inertia. His record has been pockmarked by the botched bidding process for the West Coast rail line, which he oversaw at the Department for Transport, and by the Windrush scandal at the Home Office. Had either of these happened in the private sector, someone would have got the sack. Yet he expected a knighthood, by dint of seniority – and got it.

The events which followed showed Whitehall in its worst light. Other civil servants claimed that they too had been told how to do their jobs by Ms Patel, and that her position was therefore untenable. It was a “me, too” moment, filed in triplicate.

But with all this back-stabbing – the most insidious of all bullying – who was intimidating whom?

The culture is not new; I recognise it from my three years as a civil servant. Any admonishment of subordinates, however justified, was taken as aggression, and an excuse for stress-induced sick leave. One person had been so wounded that she never came to the office during my entire tenure.

In standing by his Home Secretary, at least for now, Boris Johnson is showing a resolve that his officials – and indeed his predecessors – never did. In 2010, on the day after David Cameron assumed the job, I watched him address a rally in Leeds at which, quite unnecessarily, he singled out the civil service for its selfless devotion to public duty. I knew in that moment that he had no idea what they did.

I shall look forward to seeing how it all plays out on Spitting Image. Pulled by strings and with no backbone, latex puppets might be the best metaphor yet for civil servants.