LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said Priti Patel is a “fantastic” home secretary as he backed his senior cabinet minister amid a row over the resignation of her top civil servant.
Johnson was asked about the controversy and allegations of bullying against the Indian-origin minister by Sir Philip Rutnam, her former permanent secretary, during a visit to Public Health England in north London on Sunday evening to address the rising fears around the spread of the coronavirus in Britain. “Absolutely,” he said, when asked if he had confidence in Patel.
“I think she is a fantastic home secretary. Anybody who has been home secretary will testify that it is one of the toughest jobs in the government,” the prime minister said. In the context of what is being pegged as a clash between politicians and the civil service, Johnson also expressed his “admiration” for the country’s civil servants, whom he described as “brilliant alpha minds”.
“There is a big, big task ahead of us now. We are delivering, at last, a new immigration system for this country, a points-based immigration system,” he said in reference to the new visa regime unveiled by Patel last month.
Johnson’s intervention came following the explosive resignation of Rutnam from the UK Home Office over the weekend. While Patel herself is yet to comment on the matter, one of her cabinet colleagues, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, spoke out in her defence on Sunday.
“Priti is a very determined person but she is also very courteous,” he said. Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party has demanded that Patel address Parliament on the allegations of bullying against her.
“The home secretary has a duty to come to Parliament on Monday to explain the allegations made about her own conduct,” said Sir Kier Starmer, the frontrunner in the ongoing Labour Party leadership contest to replace Jeremy Corbyn.
The 47-year-old minister also faces the prospect of an inquiry, following Rutnam’s decision to sue the government over his alleged forced exit, and Starmer called for the head of the UK civil service, Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, to start “an immediate investigation” into the circumstances surrounding his departure.
“There are now urgent questions that must be answered and steps that need to be taken,” he said.
Rutnam announced his resignation in an emotional television statement as he claimed a “vicious and orchestrated campaign” against him and pointed the finger of blame at Patel.
“The home secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office. I regret I do not believe her,” said Rutnam, who has said he intended to go to court with “very strong grounds” to claim a constructive, unfair dismissal.
Rutnam also referred to the tensions with Patel when he encouraged her to change her behaviour.
“I have received allegations that her conduct has included shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands, behaviour that created fear and needed some bravery to call out,” he claimed. PTI