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21 April 2023

The fall of Dominic Raab is a tale of change in modern Britain

Workers are now less prepared to swallow anything that feels like disrespect or bullying.

By Andrew Marr

However angry Dominic Raab feels – and his resignation letter shows a strong sense of grievance – the Prime Minister, from his own point of view, did the right thing. Rishi Sunak smiles a lot but he is proving quite a ruthless leader.

Had he taken his deputy’s point of view about the allegations, and stuck by him, the consequences would have been lengthy, grim and distracting. I’m told there would have been legal challenges by former civil servants and protests by serving civil servants, possibly including resignations. The press would have dug into every aspect of every published allegation once the report is made public; interviews with aggrieved complainants would have gone viral. All of this would have delighted the opposition parties just ahead of important and difficult local elections for the Tories.

More important still, retaining Raab would have suggested that Sunak is ultimately a weak leader, the hostage of Tory right-wingers; more nervous about the views of his own MPs than of the general public.

[See also: Rishi Sunak pledge tracker: UK inflation remains over 10 per cent]

In other words, if I were Keir Starmer, I would have crossed my fingers for Raab’s survival. That would have not only reinforced an emerging Labour attack line on Sunak’s weakness – something you can already spot in the overnight opposition attacks on his “dithering” – but would have been a distraction from his attempt to present himself as a focused public servant, getting on with the job.

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Having said all that, this was no easy decision for the Prime Minister. “Dom” Raab had stood by him all the way through the long and tortuous summer leadership battles, including when it wasn’t in his obvious best interests to do so. Raab had seemed prepared to fight for his future, briefing that he was “lawyering up” and was determined not to resign. The two men will no doubt have spoken overnight, weighing up the politics as well as Adam Tolley KC’s report; but Sunak will have hated making the call.

Raab hasn’t gone happily nor was his resignation letter exactly dripping with regret: “In setting the threshold for bullying so low, this inquiry has set a dangerous precedent. It will encourage spurious complaints against ministers, and have a chilling effect on those driving change on behalf of your government – and ultimately the British people.”

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[See also: Could Rishi Sunak be the Tories’ new Pitt the Younger?]

The departing Justice Secretary does not have a large parliamentary gang or clique of supporters or friends on the back benches, and his letter did not suggest he wants to cause trouble. But his words sound calculated to begin a debate on the right of politics, in particular, about work culture and whether it has become too offence-averse.

Bob Kerslake, the former head of the home civil service, told me this week that it was completely wrong to see this as a case of “snowflake” civil servants taking on a determined minister who wanted change; it was about a long pattern of unusual behaviour that would not have been acceptable inside the civil service at any time. But there is no doubt that work culture throughout Britain is changing fast. What was acceptable goading, “joshing” or rebuking even a decade ago would now lead to complaints and a disciplinary tribunal. 

In a tight labour market in which employees no longer have the material guarantees their parents took for granted, workers are not prepared to swallow anything that feels like disrespect or bullying. Far from being a narrow “Westminster bubble” story, then, the fall of Raab is a salutary tale of change in modern Britain.

[See also: A reckoning for Dominic Raab, and Rishi Sunak]

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