Rishi Sunak is under growing pressure to explain what he knew and when about the Dominic Raab bullying allegations before he appointed him deputy prime minister.
The prime minister has refused to suspend Mr Raab pending the outcome of an investigation into complaints from as many as 24 civil servants.
But Conservative MPs have called for the inquiry to be fast-tracked, saying it was in everyone’s interest for it to be completed quickly.
The demands came as:
– No 10 refused to deny Mr Sunak had been aware of informal complaints about Mr Raab’s behaviour before he placed him in the cabinet.
– Tory MPs warned of growing frustration over the rising number of allegations against him and warned he cannot survive if found guilty.
– There were calls for the justice secretary to be suspended pending the outcome of the probe.
– A senior Tory MP risked inflaming the row by saying civil servants who can’t stand the heat should “get out of the kitchen”.
Downing Street repeatedly refused to say whether Mr Sunak knew of any informal complaints about the deputy prime minister’s behaviour before he put him in the cabinet.
Asked multiple times, the prime minister’s press secretary said he was “not aware of formal complaints at the time of the appointment”.
But reports suggest Mr Sunak was warned about Mr Raab’s conduct before appointing him as his deputy.
Sky News reported he had been told about “unacceptable behaviour” over the summer, although he was never “directly told” about specific issues. Mr Raab denies any wrongdoing.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also accused Mr Sunak of being “too weak” to sack Mr Raab, and of revealing the same lack of curiosity he had shown to reports over Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs. In the end, the prime minister was forced to sack the Tory chair last weekend.
In the Commons, Sir Keir asked: “Is the prime minister now also going to claim that he’s the only person completely unaware of serious allegations of bullying against the deputy prime minister before he appointed him?”
Dave Penman, the leader of the FDA union, which represents senior officials, called for Mr Raab to be suspended while the investigation takes place.
“If that was any other employee, if that was a permanent secretary in the civil service, they would in all likelihood be suspended from their job while the investigation took place,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The inquiry is already thought to have heard from Lord Simon McDonald, the top civil servant when Mr Raab was at the Foreign Office, Antonia Romeo, his current permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, and Philip Rycroft, who ran the Brexit department while Mr Raab was there.
Mr Rycroft said he was pleased the investigation was ongoing adding: “Getting this sorted out is long overdue.”
Last night MPs called for the investigation to be completed as soon as possible.
Last week’s probe into Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs took less than a week. But the inquiry into Mr Raab has been running since before Christmas.
Nigel Mills, the Tory MP for Amber Valley, said: “Any finding of bullying will be hard for (Mr Raab) to survive. But we need to see the investigation to see how serious it is. It’s in everyone’s interests for it to be done fast.”
One Tory backbencher said there was “a lot of frustration” among Tory MPs about the growing number of claims against Mr Raab, who want Mr Sunak to hurry the investigation to a conclusion. “We want it to go away as quickly as possible,” they said.
One former minister said Mr Sunak would be unwise to suspend him until the inquiry was complete, saying: “It would look like he was bowing to a media in the grip of a feeding frenzy”.
A former cabinet minister said the PM “has to wait for the inquiry to conclude” even as he conceded that the investigation would continue to hang over Mr Sunak until it was finished.
He added that it was harder for the prime minister to demand a speedy outcome from an independent KC in this case than the prime minister’s own ethics adviser, who ran the Zahawi investigation.
In the Commons, Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Sunak of being “too weak” to act over the claims as he claimed the Tory party had an addiction to “sleaze and scandal”.
He also asked the prime minister how he would feel if his friend or relative was currently working for the Justice Secretary.
Referring to Mr Zahawi, Sir Keir told the Commons: “So in relation to his former chair, his defence is: nobody told me, I didn’t know, I didn’t ask any questions.”
One senior Tory MP who defended Mr Raab, Sir Bernard Jenkin, conceded that he was a “demanding person to work with” but said that officials should be prepared to be in very challenging situations.
“To an extent, if you’re at the top of the civil service or working closely with ministers, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World At One.
Earlier this week senior Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg warned people against being “too snowflakey” over the bullying allegations.
The Liberal Democrats have called on Mr Sunak to publish the advice given to him by the Cabinet Office when he appointed Mr Raab in October.
Deputy party leader Daisy Cooper said: “The public deserves to know the truth about what he knew and when, including the full disclosure of any advice given to him by the Cabinet Office.”
A No 10 source said they were not involved in the timing of the independent investigation into Mr Raab.