Rishi Sunak was accused of “dithering” on Thursday as he agonised over whether he can cling on to deputy prime minister Dominic Raab following accusations that his ally bullied civil servants.
The prime minister was handed a report into the bullying allegations by employment lawyer Adam Tolley KC on Thursday morning and spent the day with staff debating whether Raab could survive its findings.
Government insiders said Downing Street officials were split on whether to try to hold on to Raab, who is also justice secretary, even if that could leave Sunak open to accusations he did not take bullying seriously.
Raab, who has read the Tolley report, had previously said he would quit if he was found to have bullied staff. He has always denied the allegations and remained in his post on Thursday evening.
Raab’s decision not to resign suggests he believes the Tolley report does not show that he breached the ministerial code, leaving Sunak with a huge decision over whether to sack his friend.
“If it was a slam dunk, he would be gone by now,” said one former Tory cabinet minister.
One government insider said the Tolley report did not contain a “smoking gun” conclusion that was automatically fatal for Raab.
However, others said the Tolley report, which has taken more than four months to compile, did include “damning” revelations about Raab’s treatment of his officials, a number of whom made complaints against him.
Sunak is expected to sleep on the issue and is keen to hold on to Raab, a loyal supporter, if he can. “The PM is taking time to go through the report thoroughly and consider,” said one ally of the prime minister.
But Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader, accused the prime minister of “dithering”, saying he was “trying to summon up the guts to sack his own deputy”.
Sunak’s team said the prime minister wanted to read and digest the “detailed” report by Tolley, who began investigating multiple allegations of bullying by Raab last November.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA civil service union, criticised the delay in Sunak’s response, saying: “In no other complaints system would the people brave enough to complain be expected to sit all day and wait while the prime minister prevaricates.”
Number 10 declined to say when Sunak would publish the Tolley report and deliver his verdict on Raab’s future.
Senior Whitehall figures have predicted that some civil servants could quit if the prime minister does not sack Raab, given the gravity of the claims against him.
More than 20 individuals have given testimony in eight different cases against the justice secretary.
Some of the individuals who testified against Raab have claimed they were left in tears or feeling physically sick as a result of his behaviour. One claimed to have felt suicidal.
Raab, who was a leading figure in Sunak’s bid for the Tory party leadership last summer, did not speak to the prime minister during Thursday, according to Downing Street insiders.
When Sunak launched the inquiry, Downing Street made clear that, while Tolley should “swiftly” establish the facts, the prime minister was the “ultimate arbiter” of the ministerial code.
If Sunak ends up sacking Raab, it would raise further questions about the prime minister’s judgment in forming his first cabinet, a team which included a number of ministers who faced allegations about their conduct.
Sunak, who became prime minister in October, has already had Sir Gavin Williamson resign over bullying allegations.
In January he sacked Nadhim Zahawi from the post of Conservative party chair after he was found to have committed “serious breaches” of the code.