In any profession, there’s a line between being a demanding boss and a straight-up bully. The question being asked in Westminster at the moment is – did Priti Patel cross it?

The Times newspaper has been leading the charge against the home secretary, reporting on Friday that a former minister who worked with her in a previous job regarded her tenure as their ministry’s “darkest period”.

I’ve spoken to two people who worked in departments she served in.

Neither had extensive direct contact with Ms Patel, but say she was not liked at all among staff.

One of these officials said the tension stretched into the higher ranks of the ministry and she was known to “fly off the handle a lot”.



Priti Patel says over eight million people are economically inactive

The other spoke about workers in the Department for International Development tracking her flight path online, when she was recalled from Africa in 2017 to be sacked for holding unofficial meetings with Israeli politicians.

Those close to Ms Patel categorically deny she’s a bully and say she’s simply a “demanding boss” in a “busy department” who wants to “drive her agenda through”.

Indeed, in the high-pressure world of politics, tension in the ranks doesn’t always indicate a culture of bullying.

“Every minister has a troubled relationship with their civil servants”, wrote former Home Office adviser Salma Shah in The Times on Friday.

But top-level fallouts are rather rarer.

Philip Rutnam
Image:
The home secretary has been at loggerheads with Sir Philip Rutnam

That’s why eyebrows were elevated further this week when it emerged that the home secretary has also been at loggerheads with her most senior official, the Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam.

At one point, the disagreements got so bad Ms Patel tried to have Sir Philip moved.

One area of tension was over how to deal with recent climate change protests that closed down central London.

The home secretary was unhappy with the response from officials and was concerned that police did not have the powers to prevent campaigners blocking roads.

Sources close to Ms Patel now say the government will act to limit disruption in the future.

That could include new legislation aimed at preventing protesters closing down public routes by chaining themselves together.

:: Listen to All Out Politics on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker

Another dispute was over last week’s High Court ruling that barred the deportation of a group of foreign criminals.

Taken together, it’s easy to see how an image has formed in some circles of a home secretary unconcerned with the law pushing up against a permanent secretary determined to do things by the book.

That’s not to say Sir Philip Rutnam has a squeaky clean record though.

Allies of former home secretary Amber Rudd are no fans of the civil service veteran, blaming him for her resignation over the Windrush scandal.

Those in government are keen to point out no official complaints have been lodged against Ms Patel.

The trade union that represents Whitehall staffers has criticised the disciplinary process though, saying an independent and more transparent process is needed.

Across parliament, politics and other professions, recent years have seen a new more robust approach to bullying and harassment.

That’s brought with it an increased focus on when passion and drive morphs into something more sinister.

The home secretary is currently under that microscope.

But, rightly or wrongly, as one of Boris Johnson’s most high-profile cabinet ministers and backed by an emboldened Downing Street, it will take a lot for her to be pushed out of her job.