A Tory minister has sought to defend Priti Patel against allegations of bullying by suggesting civil servants have misunderstood her work ethic.
James Cleverly, the minister for Africa and the Middle East, sought to dismiss the accusations by intimating that Patel had only wanted her team to “work hard”.
The comment comes after an inquiry by the cabinet office, which was leaked to the press on Thursday, found evidence of Patel “not meeting the requirement of the ministerial code to treat civil servants with consideration and respect”.
It went on to say that although allegations of bullying had been found, it is believed they happened unintentionally.
Under pressure to comment on leaked findings, Cleverly said he felt “incredibly uncomfortable” speculating on the report.
Appearing on BBC 1’s Question Time, Cleverly said: “I haven’t seen the report and I am incredibly uncomfortable speculating about the content of a report that I haven’t seen, or pontificating about what actions need to be taken.
“I know Priti Patel very well… and my observation of her is that she has always expected and demanded her people work hard and I think that is a completely legitimate attitude to take into government.
He added: “It is the job of minister to make sure departments function at their optimal output – “
“Not by bullying people! You don’t get optimal output by bullying people,” cut in shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry.
“By talking across them, perhaps,” Cleverly rebutted.
Thornberry replied: “You do by challenging them and you do by being clear but you don’t do it by bullying people and you know that.”
The Labour MP pressed: “If she had been bullying people, don’t you think she should go?”
Cleverly replied: “As I say, I’m not going to speculate on a report I haven’t read.”
Cleverly’s comments prompted a backlash on social media.
@hollerella posted: “The fact that James Cleverly unconsciously chose to use the word ‘DEMAND’ when describing Priti Patel’s interactions with the team, says everything. She’s a bully.”
— Hollerella (@hollerella) November 19, 2020
Tim Andrews followed up: “Interesting euphemism for @pritipatel being a bully. It is never acceptable & this nonsense about it being accidental is drivel.”
— Tim Andrews (@TimtheRed54) November 19, 2020
@68PAD added: She didn’t push people to work hard and get a bit shouty! The most senior civil servant in her department was ultimately forced to resign claiming she had orchestrated a vicious campaign against him, hold these truth twisters to account.”
One user quipped: “The Egyptians always expected and demanded that slaves work hard.”
The minister did have one supporter, though: “At over £100,000 a year I think Priti has the right to demand this from civil servants. We are not talking your average civil servant here let’s not forget.”
Sean MacGobhann followed up with a sharp rebuke: “Defending workplace bullying is indefensible”
Defending workplace bullying is indefensible
— Sean MacGobhann (@SeanMacGobhann) November 20, 2020