Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing accusations that he attempted to tone down a damning report that found Priti Patel had bullied staff.
Johnson yesterday came out in support of the home secretary, despite an inquiry concluding that she had broken ministerial code by shouting and swearing at staff.
But media reports this morning suggested the prime minister had tried — and failed — to convince the report’s author Sir Alex Allan to tone down his findings, in particular the assertion that Patel’s behaviour amounted to bullying.
Allan, a top civil servant, stepped down as Johnson’s adviser on ministerial standards yesterday.
“He [Johnson] read all of it and didn’t think Alex’s findings accorded with the evidence itself,” The Times quoted a cabinet office source as saying. “He spoke to Alex and asked him if he’d change the tone of it. Alex said no.”
Downing Street insisted Allan’s findings were “entirely his own”.
Patel last night issued an apology, stating: “Any upset I have caused was completely intentional.”
But the saga has provoked a furious response from critics, who slammed both Patel’s behaviour and Johnson’s refusal to sack her.
Former Home Office permanent secretary this morning told the BBC that the home secretary’s conduct was “completely unacceptable”, adding: “You shouldn’t have bullies in government.”
Former home secretary Ken Clarke also weighed in on the row, describing the row as an “awkward situation”.
Speaking on Times Radio, he said: “It was assumed before that if an investigation was taken this far and if anyone was found to have broken the ministerial code, I don’t think anyone would have doubted the minister, to use the old phrase, would have to consider his or her position.”
But a string of Tory MPs came out in support of the home secretary in what appeared to be a coordinated campaign.
“The reason @pritipatel has support across @Conservatives is because she’s hard working, determined and has been very kind to many,” said Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs committee.
“She knows her own mind was a great asset to @CommonsForeign and is doing a tough job in @ukhomeoffice.”
Richard Holden, MP for north west Durham, said Patel was a “tough cookie doing one of the toughest jobs around”, while Darlington MP Peter Gibson also said the home secretary was “doing a tough job tackling some of the toughest issues”.
It is the latest controversy to rock Downing Street amid growing scrutiny of Johnson’s leadership.
The prime minister is looking to reset his government after the abrupt departure of key advisers Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain last week.