Dominic Raab sunk by row over Spanish forces in Gibraltar

Dominic Raab resigned on Friday morning - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

Dominic Raab resigned on Friday morning – Paul Grover for The Telegraph

Dominic Raab resigned on Friday after an official report found that he bullied a British ambassador said to have secretly proposed putting Spanish boots on the ground in Gibraltar during Brexit talks.

The complaint was one of two upheld in the investigation, by Adam Tolley KC, into alleged bullying of civil servants, which led Rishi Sunak to accept the resignation of his deputy prime minister and justice secretary.

The Telegraph can reveal that the civil servant at the heart of the incident was Hugh Elliott, the British Ambassador to Spain.

Allies of Mr Raab have claimed he went beyond the Cabinet-agreed position to never have Spanish officers permanently stationed in Gibraltar.

In an article for The Telegraph, Mr Raab criticised the saga as “Kafkaesque” and warned that a “dangerous precedent” had been set with a low threshold for bullying behaviour.

In another interview, he said “very activist civil servants” had been working against him and warned that ministers would now be “very fearful” of officials.

Mr Sunak quickly filled the gaps in his Cabinet, handing the Deputy Prime Minister title to Oliver Dowden, a loyal ally who was already leading the Cabinet Office.

Alex Chalk, a contemporary of Mr Sunak at the private Winchester College, is the new Justice Secretary, while Chloe Smith temporarily becomes Science Secretary during Michelle Donelan’s maternity leave.

Mr Sunak has tasked Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, with looking at improving the process of complaints in the future, saying “shortcomings” have been highlighted by the Raab case.

Mr Tolley’s report did not divulge the full details of the Foreign Office and Ministry of Justice complaints he upheld, concluding in both instances that Mr Raab had intimidated officials.

But The Telegraph can reveal a fuller account of the incident in the Foreign Office that led to Mr Tolley’s conclusion of bullying – you can read it in full below.

Mr Raab’s resignation came after a 25-minute phone call with Mr Sunak on Friday morning. The Prime Minister had agonised on Thursday about whether to remove his deputy, but acknowledged that the findings meant Mr Raab had broken the ministerial code.

Downing Street waved away suggestions that Mr Raab was pressured to step down, and a return to the Cabinet one day was not ruled out by the Prime Minister’s official spokesman.

Mr Raab wrote in his Telegraph piece: “This precedent sets the playbook for a small number of officials to target ministers, who negotiate robustly on behalf of the country, pursue bold reforms and persevere in holding civil servants to account.

“If that is now the threshold for bullying in government, it is the people of this country who will pay the price.”

He told the BBC: “What you’ve got the risk of here is a very small minority of very activist civil servants, with a passive aggressive culture of the Civil Service, who don’t like some of the reforms, whether it’s Brexit, whether it’s parole reform, whether it’s human rights reform, effectively trying to block government. That’s not on. That’s not democratic.”

A string of Tory MPs and peers voiced support, asking whether the bar for bullying behaviour was set too low and warning that civil servants should not get to pick Cabinet ministers.

Lord Lilley, a former Tory MP and Cabinet minister, said civil servants should not be allowed to determine who are the elected ministers.

He added: “That’s particularly true where you have an arrangement where ministers cannot choose the civil servants that work for them. They cannot actually determine their careers, so it’s a bit odd that civil servants can determine the careers of ministers.”

But Labour figures claimed Mr Raab had shown “no remorse”. Mr Sunak has now lost three Cabinet ministers in his first six months in office, matching Boris Johnson’s modern record.

Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said: “It says everything actually that even now, he has shown no remorse or contrition, and Rishi Sunak was too weak to sack him.”

How Gibraltar and the ambassador who crossed a line kicked off Raab bullying claims

The incident that did more than any other to sink Dominic Raab’s Cabinet career came near the end of 2020, as Britain’s future relationship with the EU hung in the balance.

It concerned an open land border between UK territory and an EU member state – but not Northern Ireland, which had dominated the headlines for so much of the Brexit fallout.

Gibraltar, a rocky outcrop off southern Spain, is a British Overseas Territory, but Spain has claimed sovereignty since losing it in 1713. Those historic tensions were playing out in a modern context as both nations debated how to keep the border, crossed by scores of commuting workers every day, as open as possible.

The UK Cabinet had long had a clear position – whatever the solution proposed, Spanish boots should not be stationed permanently on Gibraltarian ground.

What followed next, recounted by allies of Mr Raab and detailed in veiled terms by Adam Tolley KC’s report into bullying allegations, would ultimately lead to Friday’s resignation.

Word reached Mr Raab, then the foreign secretary, that Spain was complaining about moving goalposts even as the UK doubled down on its position.

Bemused, he investigated further. He heard claims from colleagues that Hugh Elliott, the UK’s ambassador to Spain, may have been going beyond the existing British position.

In the retelling of Raab allies, Mr Elliott had been sounding out a “fudged” solution with Spanish counterparts that would have seen some Spanish officers stationed in Gibraltar.

He was ordered back to London by Mr Raab in November 2020, with the end of year pencilled-in finish line for negotiations fast approaching, to understand what had happened. The specifics of what was said in their meeting remain unclear and a point of dispute.

The then foreign secretary repeatedly tried to pin down the ambassador about what ideas had been floated to Spain – but, according to his allies, the answers lacked specificity.

The charge was a serious one – that an official had gone beyond the Cabinet mandate, the official approach dictated by the top table of government ministers, and had freelanced on policy.

A more sympathetic interpretation, perhaps, would be a diplomat attempting to find a landing zone for high wire negotiations. But in Mr Raab’s eyes, a red line had been crossed.

Mr Elliott was effectively removed from the front line of talks, but remained ambassador. In his place, Simon Manley, who had spent six years as UK ambassador to Spain before Mr Elliott, was sent out to conduct negotiations.

Mr Raab also made changes at the London end, with a new director for the relevant section of Europe policy installed in the Foreign Office for the business end of the Gibraltar talks.

Hugh Elliott, the British ambassador to Spain, was effectively removed from the front line of talks

Hugh Elliott, the British ambassador to Spain, was effectively removed from the front line of talks

Mr Tolley, the independent lawyer tasked with looking into claims about Mr Raab’s behaviour, addressed a complaint made about the incident in his report.

His conclusions are critical, reading: “As part of the process towards and implementation of this management choice, he [Mr Raab] acted in a way which was intimidating, in the sense of unreasonably and persistently aggressive in the context of a workplace meeting.

“His conduct also involved an abuse or misuse of power in a way that undermines or humiliates. In particular, he went beyond what was reasonably necessary in order to give effect to his decision and introduced a punitive element.

“His conduct was bound to be experienced as undermining or humiliating by the affected individual, and it was so experienced. I infer that the Deputy Prime Minister must have been aware of this effect; at the very least, he ought reasonably to have been so aware.”

Mr Tolley also found that, in a separate but linked incident, Mr Raab suggested the behaviour of those involved was “in breach of the Civil Service Code (and so would have been in breach of their contracts of employment)”.

He said Mr Raab “did not target any individual, nor intend to threaten anyone with disciplinary action. However, he ought to have realised that referring in this way to the Civil Service Code “could have been understood as such a threat”.

What exactly was said in the exchanges, the words and the emotion behind them, are not detailed in the report.

Mr Elliott’s first-hand account is not in the public domain, meaning his side of the story is unclear. He was approached for comment via the Foreign Office – he remains the UK ambassador to Spain – but none was issued. The Foreign Office declined to comment.

In the end, a deal was struck that involved no Spanish police being stationed permanently on the ground in Gibraltar. The agreement was reached on New Year’s Eve 2020.

In his article for The Telegraph, Mr Raab did not name any individuals involved but made reference to the incident.

He wrote: “The change involved no demotion or longer-term detriment. It was essential to securing a deal with Spain at 1am on New Year’s Eve 2020 – a week after the main UK-EU Free Trade deal was done – and perilously close to a ‘no-deal’ for Gibraltar.

“Nevertheless, Mr Tolley concluded that I had abused my position in relation to that official, having expressed my frustration at the lack of candour I received.

“He did not conclude it was intentional – which is the legal requirement under the definition of bullying. No-one at the time raised my conduct from the meeting, and no complaint was made until two and a half years later.”

The incident gets to the nub of the debate about Mr Raab’s conduct and whether the threshold for what was deemed ministerial bullying had been set “too low”, as he argued on Friday.

Spanish frustration at the perception of moving goalposts and the possibility of loose briefing from UK officials could have risked the post-Brexit Gibraltar status, according to Mr Raab’s allies. Details were needed quickly about what had been said when.

But in Mr Tolley’s view, whatever happened behind closed doors amounted to intimidation.

The story has another quirk. Earlier this year, The Telegraph revealed that Boris Johnson told the investigation he once warned Mr Raab about his behaviour.

Could this have been the trigger for that warning? On Nov 20 2020, the month in which Mr Elliott was called back to London, Mr Johnson, then the prime minister, was under pressure on another proprietary issue when he lost his ethics adviser.

Sir Alex Allan resigned when Mr Johnson refused to sack Priti Patel as the home secretary after a formal investigation found evidence that she bullied civil servants. Ms Patel always denied bullying claims.

Did Mr Johnson warn Mr Raab of his behaviour, but take no further action, around this time? It is not known. A source close to Mr Johnson declined to comment on what issue prompted his discussions about behaviour with Mr Raab.

The Foreign Office complaint was one of two that Mr Tolley upheld in his 48-page report, published after Mr Raab had announced his resignation.

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