Philip Rutnam, the UK Home Office’s most senior civil servant, resigned on Saturday and plans to sue the government for constructive dismissal following a war of words with home secretary Priti Patel.
Sir Philip said the “very difficult” decision was taken with “great regret” but felt he had no choice after relations with Ms Patel broke down. Anonymous briefings have emerged in the media, accusing the home secretary of bullying officials, which she denies. In return, allies of Ms Patel have accused Sir Philip of incompetence.
“In the last 10 days, I have been the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign. It has been alleged that I have briefed the media against the home secretary. This, along with many other claims, is completely false,” he said.
“The home secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office. I regret I do not believe her. She has not made the efforts I would expect to disassociate herself from the comments.”
The public resignation of such a senior civil servant is highly unusual. Sir Philip said he was offered a financial settlement by the Cabinet Office as part of his departure, but turned it down in order to make his views publicly known about the situation.
Sir Philip said he had made efforts at reconciliation with Ms Patel, as requested by Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, on behalf of prime minister Boris Johnson. “But despite my efforts to engage with her, Priti Patel has made no effort to engage with me to discuss this.”
While he said his experience of Ms Patel had been “extreme”, Sir Philip said there was evidence that it “part of a wider pattern of behaviour”. He said civil servants had made allegations to him about Ms Patel who had created an atmosphere of fear in the Home Office, including “shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands”.
As well as allegations about her behaviour, government officials had said Ms Patel was not trusted by the security services and MI5 had denied her access to sensitive information. In response, Ms Patel said this was untrue.
The most recent reports from allies of the home secretary described Sir Philip as “a classic, old-school establishment mandarin” who was blocking progress. “He is very good at blocking things without saying it. It is never a flat out ‘no’, just lots of ‘ooh minister, that’s very courageous’.”
The FDA union, which represents civil servants, said his resignation showed “the destructive consequences of anonymous briefings against public servants who are unable to publicly defend themselves”.
General secretary Dave Penman said: “This cowardly practice is not only ruining lives and careers, but at a time when the Home Office is being tasked with delivering a demanding government agenda on immigration, and preparing for a public health emergency, it has diverted energy and resources in to responding to unfounded accusations from sources claiming to be allies of the home secretary.”