Senior government officials expect Boris Johnson to issue Priti Patel with a warning over allegations that she bullied civil servants, but say he will not dismiss the home secretary from the cabinet.
Ms Patel has been under investigation for nine months over her conduct at the Home Office and other departments. The inquiry was prompted by the resignation of Philip Rutnam, the former head of the Home Office, over what he described as a “vicious and orchestrated campaign” against him. Ms Patel denies all allegations of bullying.
The investigation has been completed for several months, according to Cabinet Office insiders, but the prime minister has yet to adjudicate on its contents. However, he intends to conclude the investigation “imminently”, according to individuals with knowledge of the situation.
The Cabinet Office said: “The process is ongoing and the prime minister will make any decision on the matter public once the process has concluded.” Downing Street declined to comment.
Several Whitehall officials told the Financial Times that Mr Johnson was intending to “fudge” the outcome of the report, which contains “robust criticisms” of Ms Patel’s behaviour. Instead of a dismissal from the cabinet, one government insider said the home secretary is expected to be issued with a “written warning” along with a request for an apology.
All cabinet ministers are governed by the ministerial code, which states that “harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent with the ministerial code and will not be tolerated”. The prime minister is the arbiter of the code and will decide whether it has been broken.
Mr Johnson has been urged by Helen MacNamara, the civil service’s head of ethics, and Alex Allan, Whitehall’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, to release the report before Christmas. Both officials are said to be “unhappy” at the state of the investigation.
Mark Sedwill, the former head of the civil service, confirmed on Tuesday that the report was in Mr Johnson’s hands. “It’s a decision in the end for the PM, whether he publishes anything,” he told a parliamentary select committee.
Allies of Ms Patel insisted there was “not one single incident” of bullying cited by the investigation and it contained “general gripes” about her management style. “Legally it’s up to the PM on what he wants to do with the report, he’s under no pressure to release it. Nothing has changed,” one of them said.
Another said some of the officials who have made complaints have accepted that claims they made about Ms Patel were inappropriate.
Dave Penman, head of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said: “Thousands of civil servants who support ministers every day are waiting to see whether he [Mr Johnson ] will honour the commitments he gave when he took up office, or whether difficult party political considerations will outweigh his obligations as prime minister.”
If Ms Patel is not sacked following the inquiry, senior Conservative party figures suggested she might be moved to a different department in a new year reshuffle as Mr Johnson is “increasingly unhappy” with her management of the Home Office.
“Her inability to control immigrants across the channel whilst constantly talking the problem up and never doing a deal with the French to arrest the flow has also annoyed the PM,” one well-placed Tory said.
But other Conservatives rejected this claim. “There is no one as robust on this matter as Priti. If senior Tories think someone else can be tougher, then they’re deluded,” the party official said.
One mooted future role for Ms Patel is party chairman. But allies of Mr Johnson have previously said his instinct is to “stick with Prit [as home secretary] if she can sort the [migrant crossing] issue.”
Resolving the investigation into Ms Patel is part of an effort to reset relations with the civil service following the departure of Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser who pledged that a “hard rain” would fall on Whitehall.
His exit has been greeted with “relief” among civil servants, with one senior mandarin describing a feeling of “liberation” following the changes in Downing Street.
“There’s no change in the policy agenda, the foot will be kept on the pedal but there may be a little more time to consider things,” one official said.