2 Mar 2020

Priti Patel subject of Cabinet Office inquiry over breach of ministerial code

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Home Secretary Priti Patel is now the subject of an inquiry led by the Cabinet Office, with senior Whitehall figure Alex Allen available to provide support.

That might sound like a cosy way to clear her of all charges. But the last time that combination of forces was aligned in this way was to investigate Damian Green during Theresa May’s premiership. Mr Green ended up having to resign for something not connected with the original complaint, but a public statement denying something else altogether dating back to 2008.

It shows you how these inquiries can take on a life of their own, and even if Number 10 is determined to defend the Cabinet Minister, in the spotlight they can run out of road. The BBC is tonight reporting that one official who used to work for Priti Patel in a previous job tried to take their own life.

If the Cabinet Office conducts itself the way it did over Damian Green, Alex Allen would be providing a kind of kitemark to the Cabinet Office officials’ inquiry which will have been produced under the supervision of the Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill.

In a different approach, Alex Allen actually produced his own report after investigating the actions of Alun Cairns, the Welsh Secretary, who resigned at the start of the general election campaign.

In that case, Allen produced a report which said there wasn’t compelling evidence to find Mr Cairns guilty of a breach of the ministerial code, but it wasn’t always easy to imagine he was as innocent as he suggested. If Mr Cairns hadn’t resigned already you could easily imagine how a storm could’ve forced him to go after that equivocally worded report.

So there are precedents for these sorts of inquiries producing some gritty conclusions. But critics of the system say it allows the Prime Minister (the only individual who can find a minister in breach of the ministerial code) to be judge and jury of what well might be their own oversights or neglect. It allows too much power to the Cabinet Secretary, in this instance a man who quite a few senior civil servants believe has gone native in Number 10 and failed to defend them and their principles.

It is revelations to the media which can jolt these inquiries in one direction or another. How many people have you crossed? How many enemies have you made? The government today rehearsed the line that it can’t say too much until we’ve had the industrial tribunal which the Home Office outgoing Permanent Secretary is pursuing. But much may be said by others – and that may be more critical than a tribunal that might not start for many months.

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