Boris Johnson under pressure to launch inquiry after 'astonishing' resignation of top Home Office official Sir Philip Rutnam
Boris Johnson has been urged to “get a grip” and launch an investigation into the "astonishing" resignation of the Home Office’s top mandarin, Sir Philip Rutnam, over a bullying row with Priti Patel.
In a dramatic televised exit statement, the long-serving Whitehall official said he had been the victim of "a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign" by allies of the Home Secretary.
The outgoing permanent secretary said he would be pursuing a constructive dismissal case against the Government, as he accused Ms Patel of failing to "disassociate herself" from attacks on him.
And he claimed the Home Secretary had shouted and sworn at Home Office staff.
Senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who chairs Parliament’s cross-party Home Affairs Committee, said the “very serious” claims should prompt a “fast” investigation from Number 10 and the Cabinet Office.
“To end up with one of the most senior public servants in the country taking court action against one of the great offices of state shows a shocking level of breakdown in the normal functioning of government,” she said.
“For the Home Secretary and Prime Minister to have allowed things to reach this point is appalling, especially at a time when the Home Office faces crucial challenges with rising violent crime, forthcoming counter terror legislation, new immigration laws, and sensitive negotiations on post-Brexit security cooperation.”
And Ms Cooper added: “Serious allegations have been made against the Home Secretary and these will now be pursued through an Employment Tribunal. However tribunals can take months.
"We cannot afford to have a dysfunctional and distracted Home Office while this tribunal is going on. The work of the Home Office and the Home Secretary is far too important for that. The Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary therefore have a duty to investigate these allegations to a much faster timetable so that the normal functioning of the Home Office can be restored.”
She went on: “The Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary need to get a grip of this mess quickly before it causes even more problems for the vital work of the Home Office.”
That view was echoed by Labour leadership frontrunner Sir Keir Starmer, who said it was “unprecedented” for a senior official to have “raised concerns like this in such a public way”.
The former director of public prosecutions said: "There are now urgent questions that must be answered and steps that need to be taken.
“First, the Cabinet Secretary should launch an immediate investigation into the circumstances surrounding Sir Philip Rutnam’s departure.
“Second, the Home Secretary has a duty to come to Parliament on Monday to explain the allegations made about her own conduct.
Sir Keir added: “Third, over recent weeks there has been growing evidence of a serious breakdown of government.
“The Prime Minister’s handling of the flooding and coronovirus has been woeful, advisers in Number 10 are out of control, and attacks on the civil service are growing.
“I would therefore call on the Liaison Committee to hold an urgent inquiry into the culture and workings of government.
“Johnson may have won the election, but he is losing a grip on his government and the British people are paying the price. He must be held to account.”
Labour frontbencher Jon Trickett called for Mr Johnson to face a Commons grilling “without delay” over the “astonishing” row.
The Shadow Cabinet Office minister said: "This is an authoritarian regime failing in basic administration whilst threatening vital institutions such as the judiciary, BBC and now senior public servants. The Prime Minister must come to the House of Commons to answer Sir Philip Rutnam's allegations without delay.”
Sir Philip’s decision to quit comes after weeks of reports of tensions at the Home Office, with Ms Patel forced to deny accusations she has bullied staff and pushed for the resignation of top officials.
But Sir Philip told the BBC: "In the last 10 days, I have been the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign."
And the outgoing permanent secretary hit out at "completely false" claims that he had personally briefed against Ms Patel - as he appeared to accuse her of misleading the Cabinet Office.
"The Home Secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office," said Sir Philip.
"I regret I do not believe her. She has not made the efforts I would expect to dissociate herself from the comments.
"Even despite this campaign I was willing to effect a reconciliation with the Home Secretary, as requested by the Cabinet Secretary on behalf of the Prime Minister. But despite my efforts to engage with her, Priti Patel has made no effort to engage with me to discuss this.
"I believe that these events give me very strong grounds to claim constructive, unfair dismissal - and I will be pursuing that claim in the courts. My experience has been extreme but I consider that there is evidence that it is part of a wider pattern of behaviour.
"One of my duties as Permanent Secretary was to protect the health, safety and well-being of our 35,000 people. This created tension with the Home Secretary, and I have encouraged her to change her behaviours.
"I have received allegations that her conduct has included shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands - behaviour that created fear and that needed some bravery to call out."
The exit of Sir Philip comes just days after he and Ms Patel issued a joint statement insisting they were focused on the Home Office's work and calling for an end to media speculation about a breakdown in relations at Marsham Street.
The shock resignation has already prompted fury from all three of Whitehall's unions - and calls for Mr Johnson to make a public statement in support of the civil service.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents officials, confirmed they would be supporting him in his legal action.
"Sir Philip’s decision to resign and claim constructive dismissal demonstrates once again the destructive consequences of anonymous briefings against public servants who are unable to publicly defend themselves," he said.
"This cowardly practice is not only ruining lives and careers, but at a time when the Home Office is being tasked with delivering a demanding Government agenda on immigration, and preparing for a public health emergency, it has diverted energy and resource into responding to unfounded accusations from sources claiming to be allies of the Home Secretary.
Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, whose members include thousands of officials, meanwhile urged Boris Johnson to publicly back a “strong impartial civil service” in the wake of the “extraordinary and unprecedented” resignation of Sir Philip.
The union boss added: “The Prime Minister should now intervene to make clear that a strong, impartial civil service has his full support and he will not allow this to pass as acceptable on his watch.”
And a spokesman for the PCS union, which represents frontline civil servants, said: “It is deeply concerning to hear of repeated allegations of bullying by the Home Secretary and this should be investigated thoroughly."
Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill on Saturday lunchtime confirmed he had “received and accepted with great regret the resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam”
He added: “I thank him for his long and dedicated career of public service.”
Sir Mark said the Home Office’s second permanent secretary Shona Dunn would step up to become acting permanent secretary “with immediate effect” as he vowed: “The Home Office’s vital work to keep our citizens safe and our country secure continues uninterrupted.”
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe