Dominic Raab, who quit as the UK’s deputy prime minister on Friday, is both the victim, and the beneficiary, of his unusual industry. He is a beneficiary because, long before his ministerial career was brought to an end by allegations of bullying, his administrative record would surely have halted it elsewhere. Raab attributed the reaction to him from civil servants to the “pace, standards and challenge” he brought to the role, but his ministerial career is one lacking in achievement. At the time of his second appointment to the role of justice secretary, he had nothing on his CV to recommend he be given another ministerial job.
Yet if his chosen career were anything other than that of a politician, he would surely not have lost his job as justice secretary in the manner he did. Being found by an independent report to have, on occasion, interrupted people by “extending his hand directly out towards another person’s face” is, by any standard, unnecessarily rude. But in any normal workplace, a quiet word in the handraiser’s ear and a gentle apology would surely suffice.
Raab is not the first politician to be dogged by rumours about his conduct. Labour’s last prime minister, Gordon Brown, was accused of throwing pens and even a stapler at staff. In April 2009, Bloomberg reported that one aide had been warned to beware of “flying Nokias”. The then prime minister’s spokesperson described Bloomberg’s report as “the sort of unsubstantiated, unsourced nonsense that you would expect to read in Sunday newspapers, not on the supposedly respectable financial wire services”. The difference, of course, is that some of the allegations against Raab were upheld by an independent KC.
In 2020, the presidential bid of Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota’s senior senator, was hit by a series of bullying allegations. She was accused of regularly reducing staff to tears and berating them via email. One of her former staffers, Tristan Brown, defended her, telling the Huffington Post: “I’ve heard people say she’s tough to work for and I sometimes cringe when I hear it because I rarely hear that said about male bosses in Congress despite the fact that half of Congress is tough to work for” — a line, again, that is noticeably not a denial of the allegations themselves.
What links Raab, Brown and Klobuchar is that their chosen profession — that of an elected official — is not normal and neither is their workplace.
Political parties and parliamentary offices are high-pressure environments full of bosses with limited management experience and junior staff bound directly to their boss’s will.
Although none of these features are only to be found in the world of politics, taken together they can create particularly dysfunctional workplaces. The Raab affair illustrates all of them well: while the crisis at the CBI shows how many of the same problems can hit organisations that do not face the unique circumstances or pressures of politics.
The problems go back to Raab’s initial appointment. Like Klobuchar, Brown and essentially every politician to take office before them, Raab’s main qualification for holding high office was his ability to win elections. He was promoted by successive prime ministers in large part because of his political credentials as a committed Brexiter from the right of the party. What he and most politicians do not have is management experience. Politics is far from the only industry where people are rewarded for expertise in one field with management responsibilities, and left to sink or swim. It is a periodic problem for many businesses, not least journalism. In recent years it has been a particular challenge for tech companies where, thanks to periods of rapid growth and expansion, people have been promoted into management roles with incredible speed.
But one important difference between politics and other industries is that there is no internal pressure to improve the management skills of individual politicians. Governments and legislatures face continual pressures not only to keep costs down, but a constant backdrop of hostility from the press and their opponents about any spending that looks like a perk.
The same thing that sees ministers crammed like sardines into second-class train carriages and that has resulted in more than a decade of real-terms pay cuts for parliamentary aides and civil servants, means there is little prospect that elected politicians are going to be given proper management training.
Even if it were on offer, there is no one who can really make them take it. One neglected subplot of Adam Tolley’s report into Raab’s conduct was that Antonia Romeo, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, had made representations to him to change his behaviour. (Raab disputes this account, though Tolley accepted it as truth, in part because of the depth of Romeo’s contemporaneous notes.) Ultimately, given that neither administration officials nor the politician in question’s ultimate boss, the prime minister, is going to make a key ally undertake management training, politics will always be cursed by inexperienced and poor managers.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the political workplace’s unusual structure makes it even more prone to dysfunction. Most people in politics, whether they are an adviser or working in a parliamentary office, are bound directly to their boss’s will in ways that are rare outside the most messianic of start-ups. They tend to share a political outlook and a set of objectives. It’s a workplace where people are used to going the extra mile and where tolerance of bad bosses is incredibly high. Almost everyone is either at the very top of the organisational tree — they are a minister, an MP running their parliamentary office or the prime minister — or they are in a largely flat structure. One problem in the CBI, too, is that it is an organisation with a “missing middle”: many comparatively junior staff flanked by a handful of powerful senior bosses is always a recipe for trouble.
What makes the toxicity of politics more likely to spill into the open is, in part, that politicians engage in conflict with one another, but also because successful politicians are forced into contact with an organisation that actually does operate like a modern workplace: the government bureaucracy. This is where a bullying or charismatic politician can discover they do not have what it takes to actually run a government department. It is no coincidence that many politicians’ careers fizzle out once they get into government: or that Raab’s career has ended because of his conduct towards civil servants.
The difficult truth for politicians, their direct employees and anyone who comes into contact with them is that these features are not easily removed from politics. While there is never an excuse for bullying, if success in the field of elections brought with it the obligation to be good at management, we would no longer call the state in question a liberal democracy. For the rest of us, politics remains a useful case study for how not to run a workplace, and probably always will do.