Why Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces looming legal challenge over Priti Patel backlash

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Boris Johnson was criticised for discounting the findings of an investigation, carried out by his independent ethics advisor, last year. Priti Patel’s behaviour was quoted in the report as that which “can be described as bullying”. The challenge brings fresh focus onto the Prime Minister’s approach to ethics in public life.

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Last year, the PM’s independent advisor on the ministerial code, Alex Allan, resigned after Johnson decided not to act on a report he wrote about Ms Patel.

Following a Cabinet Office investigation, Mr Allan wrote a report which detailed how Ms Patel had “not consistently met the high standards expected of her”.

His report referenced instances in which she was found to have shouted and sworn at staff and that her behaviour accounted for a “breach of the ministerial code, even if unintentionally”.

However, Mr Johnson decided that Ms Patel had not breached the ministerial code, and instead urged Conservative MPs to “form a square around the Pritster”.

As PM and ultimate arbiter, Mr Johnson has the final say on whether the ministerial code has been broken.

Consequently, a judicial review of the PM’s decision has successfully been brought forward by the FDA union, and will be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice next Wednesday and Thursday.

The FDA union represents civil servants in the United Kingdom.

Speaking in advance of the court hearing, Dave Penman, the FDA’s General Secretary, said: “Civil servants should expect to work with ministers without fear of being bullied or harassed.

“The prime minister’s decision, which he said reflected the home secretary’s assertion that her actions were unintentional, also potentially allows ministers to avoid the consequences of their behaviour in future by pleading that it should be the intent of their actions which is important, not the consequences.

“The result is that civil servants’ confidence in challenging unacceptable behaviour from ministers has been fatally damaged.”

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Following Mr Johnson’s decision, the Home Secretary reached a six-figure settlement with the former permanent secretary of her department, Sir Phillip Rutnam.

This was after claims surfaced that he was forced out of his position for intervening in Ms Patel’s alleged bullying.

Whitehall sources suggested Mr Rutnam received a £340,000 settlement, with an added £30,000 in costs.

For Mr Johnson and his government, the court challenge emerges at a difficult time.

Last week saw a failed attempt to save ex-Tory MP Owen Paterson from suspension, which has only increased pressure on the government with regards to various “sleaze” claims.

Mr Johnson insists that Britain is not “remotely a corrupt country”.

On the other hand, Labour argue that the PM’s inability to apologise for his role in undermining public trust has shown that “he doesn’t care about tackling corruption”.

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