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Rishi Sunak’s response to Dominic Raab’s resignation won’t improve ministerial-civil service relations

Rishi Sunak has missed an opportunity to reinforce standards in government.

Dominic Raab, deputy prime minister and secretary of state for justice, exiting a car as he arrives for a cabinet meeting.
Dominic Raab has resigned as deputy prime minister and secretary of state for justice after an investigation found that he behaved in a way that was “intimidating” and “unreasonably persistent and aggressive”.

Hannah White argues that Rishi Sunak’s neutral acceptance of Dominic Raab’s grudging resignation is more likely to inhibit effective government than Raab’s claims of the “chilling effect” of the Tolley report

In his closely argued report, Adam Tolley KC found that, in certain instances he investigated, Dominic Raab behaved in a way that was “intimidating” and “unreasonably persistent and aggressive”, engaging in “… abuse or misuse of power in a way that undermines or humiliates.” In his resignation letter, Dominic Raab preferred to highlight that “all but two” of the complaints against him were dismissed – neglecting to recognise that the upholding of a single complaint would have been grounds for resignation – according to the bar he himself had set.  

Raab’s behaviour had a negative impact on civil servants 

Raab goes further. The former justice secretary argues that the “two adverse findings are flawed and set a dangerous precedent for the conduct of good government,” suggests that the Tolley report will encourage spurious complaints against ministers, and warns that it will have a “chilling effect” on the efforts of ministers to set direction for the civil service and demand high performance. Ironically, the report provides plenty of evidence that Raab himself had the precise effect on ministerial-civil service relations that he purports to fear, with “unreasonably demanding” behaviour having a negative impact on civil servants, on their relationship with him as a minister and on their ability to do their jobs.  

A secretary of state’s key responsibility is to provide political leadership for a department, alongside the organisational leadership provided by the permanent secretary, so that it delivers towards the overarching goals of the government. Dominic Raab’s style of leadership was clearly felt to be intolerable by many MoJ and FCDO civil servants. What is more difficult to evidence conclusively is the extent to which his "intimidating behaviour" affected the ability of his departments to deliver on the government’s goals.  

Sunak has missed an opportunity to reinforce ministerial standards 

Raab’s challenge to Adam Tolley’s conclusions appears to arise from his sense that he has been “wronged” – as the KC puts it. While noting that Raab has amended his behaviour while under investigation, Tolley highlights what he sees as the significance of Raab’s rejection of his findings: “There is to that extent a risk of repetition, albeit one whose extent is difficult to assess.” For civil servants at least, this specific risk presumably rests in abeyance for as long as Raab remains out of ministerial office. But there is a more general risk which arises from the unfortunate way in which the conclusion of the Tolley inquiry has been handled.  

It is a good thing that Raab has borne the consequences of his unprofessional conduct by stepping down from government. But the extraordinarily poor grace of his resignation letter means that this case has failed to clarify the standards expected of ministers – a major area of uncertainty since Johnson rejected an independent finding of bullying against Priti Patel. The conclusion of the Raab inquiry has done nothing to help other ministers who misunderstand what professional behaviour looks like avoid getting into the same position. 

The situation has been worsened by Rishi Sunak’s response. While Raab’s reaction is perhaps unsurprising – especially to anyone who reads Tolley’s account of his refusal to accept any challenge to his behaviour – it is regrettable that Sunak’s letter of response lacks any statement of the PM’s own judgment regarding whether Raab’s behaviour met the standards he expects of his ministers. Sunak’s neutral acceptance of Raab’s resignation is explicable from a political point of view – accommodating the view of some in the Conservative party that Raab has been the victim of a woke witch-hunt – but it misses the opportunity to set a strong ethical tone from the top and thereby to give credence to his assertion that he wants to lead a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability.”  

Raab’s letter and Sunak’s response may discourage future complaints 

Contrary to Raab’s claim that the Tolley report is likely to encourage complaints against ministers, his own resignation letter and Sunak’s response seem far more likely to deter officials from speaking out in future. The report’s account of how the various complaints against Raab came to light shows how reluctant civil servants already are to complain, even informally. Tolley notes the risk taken by civil servants who raise complaints against ministers “in respect of their careers” and praises junior MoJ civil servants “for their courage in coming forward”, adding that “ cannot have been easy for them to do so and their motivation was to stand up for more senior colleagues whose experiences they had observed at one remove.”  

Reading Raab and Sunak’s letters together, no civil servant would conclude that the current government is keen to establish a culture of accountability and professionalism or feel encouraged to speak out in future. An opportunity to reinforce standards has been missed, the mutual suspicion which has been growing between ministers and civil servants remains and nothing has been done to reduce the risk of future problems. 

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