April 21, 2023 - 11:45am

Dominic Raab has fallen on his sword, rather than forcing the Prime Minister to sack him after allegations of bullying were upheld against the now-departed Justice Secretary. The outcome only makes Sunak’s position a little easier, and certainly doesn’t change the questions many in the party will be asking about the balance of power between ministers and mandarins. 

It is never easy for a PM to lose a cabinet minister — especially a close ally. Raab backed Sunak through the first leadership contest, was sidelined by Truss, and returned to government as both Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister. Though the latter is largely a symbolic role, it was an important marker of Sunak’s faith in him. Now that faith looks wasted. 

Sunak is forced into an unwelcome reshuffle. Replacing a single minister offers far more opportunity to offend Westminster colleagues than to reward them. Sunak will have to choose his pick for the Justice brief carefully, balancing power between the various party factions. The same will be true of the more junior roles that will open behind whoever is elevated. A botched reshuffle can create all sorts of internal headaches. 

Equally, Sunak will have to find someone who can ensure Justice is a functioning department. The crisis in the courts is becoming an increasingly potent issue. Backlogs in trials caused by a decade of cuts, and compounded by the Covid closures, are snarling up the justice system. This means uncertainty for both victims and the accused, as trials are postponed — with each adjournment reducing the prospect of conviction. At the same time, the department will have to repair the relationship with civil servants in the wake of Raab’s exit. 

The unravelling of Raab’s stint will also likely open another front in the Tory Party’s battle with the civil service. Backbenchers and even ministers increasingly talk about “the Blob”, and the perception that politically motivated intransigence is used to frustrate their policies. That a minister was ousted through civil servants’ grievances will only add succour to this. 

Raab himself feels aggrieved. He thinks the “findings are flawed and set a dangerous precedent for the conduct of good government”, that they curtail the ability of ministers to hold mandarins to account and press their policies through Government.  Most of the complaints against him were upheld, and when the report comes out it seems likely to be in the grey zone of culpability with no real smoking gun. 

That a minister has been forced out in these circumstances will anger many in the party who see the civil service as an obstacle. Equally, it will empower mandarins who recognise that they have the opportunity to push back against politicians whose bad management slips beyond the bounds of acceptability. It adds a new dimension to the relationship between elected and professional officials, potentially accelerating calls for US-style political appointees.

Governing is hard enough already for the Tories. The party seems tired, its popularity has waned and internal factions are finely balanced. Equally, it faces external difficulties, such as adverse economic circumstances and a small boats problem that is easy to talk about but hard to fix. The Conservatives could do without unforced errors. 

Now the Prime Minister faces unwelcome challenges. First, he has to replace a key ally without alienating too much of his party. Then there will be a smouldering conflict between the party and the civil service — both of which Sunak needs on board to get things done. The loss of your first minister is a rite of passage for a PM, another sign that the honeymoon period is over. Sunak’s was hardly sparkling to begin with, but now government will be a little more gruelling.

John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.