Why Philip Rutnam’s row with Priti Patel shocked Whitehall
2020-03-01 | Since 3 Month
Catherine Haddon
Catherine Haddon

Senior officials in the civil service tend to avoid the limelight. Sometimes they emerge in front of select committees, and occasionally they give speeches or make set-piece appearances in their department. It was therefore an astonishing move for the permanent secretary of the Home Office, Sir Philip Rutnam, to hold a press conference on Saturday to announce his resignation.

But the fact of Rutnam’s appearance in front of the cameras paled in comparison to what he had to say. “I regret I do not believe her,” he declared, in reference to Priti Patel’s denials that she had been involved in a briefing campaign against him. These are extraordinary words for a permanent secretary to be using about his political boss. To announce that he intended to bring a case of constructive dismissal made it all the more incredible.
The Home Office has seen plenty of internal dramas, of course. In the 1990s the departure of the head of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis, led to an infamous Newsnight interview of the home secretary, Michael Howard, by Jeremy Paxman. Another Home Office permanent secretary, Sir John Gieve, lost the trust of his boss, Charles Clarke, after a series of institutional failings in the early 2000s, with both Gieve and later Clarke moving on from the department. Then there was the departure of Brodie Clark, who resigned as head of the Border Agency after falling out with the then-home secretary, Theresa May. Both Lewis and Clark also looked to resolve their cases through employment tribunals.

But it was the manner of Rutnam’s resignation that has so shocked Whitehall and the watching media, not the fact that he is leaving the department. It is not unknown for a permanent secretary and secretary of state to fall out, even when it’s as badly as Patel and Rutnam seem to have done. But it really is unknown for it to end up in quite such an explosive resignation statement, let alone for an outgoing permanent secretary to bring a case of constructive dismissal.

The war of words will doubtless continue. Rutnam has said he does not believe the home secretary was innocent of briefing against him and has set out allegations about her treatment of Home Office staff. In turn, Rutnam has been accused of failures in managing the department, and his leadership is expected to come under heavy criticism in the forthcoming review of the Windrush scandal. The government’s view seems to be that the home secretary’s tough approach is the right one, and that the departure of Rutnam will help Patel to institute changes in how the department operates and make progress on policy.

Beyond Rutnam versus Patel, this weekend’s events will have wide ramifications. For the Home Office it will mean a new official in charge. The department has an acting permanent secretary, Shona Dunn, but both she and the eventual full-time successor to Rutnam face a huge task. On top of the day-to-day issues that make the Home Office one of the riskiest departments to lead, their in-tray includes that review into Windrush, the implementation of a major new immigration system, and post-Brexit border challenges. It will take a lot of work to ensure the department functions effectively.

The case also raises the question of what constitutes acceptable behaviour by ministers. The Ministerial Code is unambiguous: “There must be no bullying and no harassment.” Any court case, while probably unlikely, would draw out what that looks like in practice: what is robust debate and strong leadership, and what crosses the line? The media are often quick to jump on any signs of ministers falling out with their officials. These stories are frequently overblown, and it is worth remembering that elsewhere ministers and officials are working very hard and very closely to tackle the impact of coronavirus.

But Rutnam has been quite specific in his complaints and made a point of saying that he hoped his resignation would send a message and protect other staff. This suggests wider concerns, and there have indeed been other stories about unacceptable behaviour, some of which has been directed at political advisers.

Civil service accountability will also come under scrutiny. Ministers have long complained that they have little control over staffing and that poor performance can go unaddressed. There is likely to be renewed debate about whether those officials who lead departments should be political appointees, as they are in many countries.

Then there are questions for both the cabinet secretary and the prime minister. How well did Sir Mark Sedwill handle the situation and should he have done more at an earlier stage? Did the prime minister sufficiently encourage the home secretary to resolve any tension and avoid this outcome? Even if Rutnam’s critics are happy that he has gone, No 10 is likely to want to avoid any repeats of his explosive exit.

The government may accept some collateral damage is necessary to make progress with its agenda, but in the end it needs the civil service to concentrate on delivery, not drama.

The Guardian



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