What has happened to the report into Priti Patel?

Priti Patel Image copyright PA Media

"It was finished, but it has become unfinished" - welcome to what seems to be extremely tricky wrangling over the report into Home Secretary Priti Patel's alleged behaviour towards staff.

It is a long time now since I spent a very strange Saturday morning, standing in the pouring rain in North London, listening up close to the extraordinary resignation statement from the top official at her department, Sir Philip Rutnam.

The former mandarin announced his intention to sue the government, making a series of incendiary allegations about how she acted.

The home secretary fervently denied his version of events, but as you would expect, the Cabinet Office swiftly announced that there would have to be a separate investigation into whether she had broken the ministerial code - the rules that guide how senior politicians are meant to behave in office.

The Cabinet Minister Michael Gove confirmed to MPs a matter of days later that it was "vital this investigation is concluded as quickly as possible in the interests of everyone involved".

At that stage, no one would have bargained on the coronavirus pandemic slamming the brakes on much of the business of government with its urgent demands.

But as Parliament looks to the summer break, there is an increasing sense of tension over what on earth has happened to the report into the home secretary - one of the most senior politicians in the country, the most senior woman in government - who Boris Johnson would be loath to lose.

Given the importance of her position in government, and the sensitivities around the issue, almost everyone you try to talk to about it sighs when the subject is raised.

It is not very easy to get to the bottom of exactly what is going on. It is clear however, that there is a problem.

Some in Ms Patel's camp suggest that the hold up in the government's own inquiry may be down to the separate employment tribunal claim being pursued by Sir Philip through the legal system.

That is dismissed as nonsense by those backing his claim. Dave Penman from the FDA union which represents senior civil servants told me "it's quite separate from the tribunal process."

There are no restrictions whatever on the prime minister around making a decision. The tribunal may not even take place until next year.

Image copyright BBC News
Image caption Sir Philip Rutnam making his resignation statement

What is up then?

One senior official told me the initial inquiry into how the home secretary had behaved hadn't come up with much, there was nothing really amiss.

Officials in fact had been preparing to publish the outcome more than a month ago.

But then "there was a pause". And after another bit of work, it's suggested some issues were uncovered, but that there was no slam dunk finding that would make it impossible for her to stay on in her job.

Two separate sources concur that the inquiry has found some evidence of poor behaviour during her time in government.

But according to the senior official the report itself has since been "parked".

Not, it's said, because it contains the kind of explosive material that would require the home secretary's automatic exit.

But because no one agrees what to do next hence, in a phrase worthy of the fictional Sir Humphrey himself, the report is now 'unfinished'.

One of the suggestions I'm told is that officials believe that there should be some "learning" for the home secretary, or perhaps even an apology for past mistakes, but there is not much enthusiasm on Downing Street's side for that.

There are even claims, that are denied by the Cabinet Office, that the senior official who has put the report together has threatened to resign over Number 10's reluctance to act.

'Unease'

But several insiders have also suggested that the tension is, in part, a result of the less than happy wider atmosphere between the Cabinet Office and Downing Street.

Unease is thick in the air in Whitehall over No 10's plans for shaking up the civil service.

The service boss is on his way out, the prime minister's team are set on making change.

Hackles are up. Nerves are fraught. Bullying allegations against one of the most senior politicians in the land would, at any time, create tensions around the place.

Neither Ms Patel's team, nor Downing Street will comment. Any kind of bullying allegation has always been and is still firmly denied by Ms Patel.

And her allies say that she is still in the dark about what is in the report itself, and was told, it's claimed, near the start of the process, that there had been no formal complaints.

But this is a messy business, and it is nearly five months since the start.

If the decision to publish is to be made before the end of this Parliamentary session, it has to happen soon.

One insider joked the decision may come towards the end of next week, part of "dump week", when the government pushes out a flurry of announcements before MPs disappear for the summer.

But in the end, believe it nor, the government is under no obligation to publish the full findings.

The ministerial code has many pages, many principles, and many rules.

But whatever the investigation has found, the code makes plain it is for the Prime Minister himself to decide what to do.

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