Senior Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg has warned against being “too snowflakey” over bullying allegations as he defended Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab.
Rishi Sunak has refused to suspend Mr Raab despite the number of allegations to his bullying inquiry reportedly swelling significantly and being added to by a former top civil servant.
The Prime Minister has been under increased pressure after he sacked Nadhim Zahawi as Tory chairman following a furore over his tax affairs.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have urged Mr Sunak to suspend Mr Raab while he is under investigation by senior lawyer Adam Tolley KC.
Reports suggest that former Foreign Office permanent secretary Lord Simon McDonald has given evidence to Mr Tolley as a witness.
The two other permanent secretaries who worked with Mr Raab while he held Cabinet positions have now also been interviewed, according to The Guardian.
The newspaper has also reported that at least 24 civil servants, and perhaps more than 30, are involved in formal complaints. Mr Raab denies allegations of bullying.
Mr Rees-Mogg said it is “completely sensible” for Mr Raab to remain as Mr Sunak’s deputy, and Justice Secretary, while under investigation.
The former Brexit opportunities minister and Commons leader told Sky News: “I think we’ve got to be slightly careful about the bullying allegations.
“We mustn’t be too snowflakey about it. People need to be able to say this job has not been done well enough and needs to be done better.
“It’s a very difficult line to judge. It’s not a straightforward issue in most cases. It’s how did somebody react, what did somebody say, is it reasonable to demand from senior and well-paid professionals a level of good service? And then you have to judge whether that line has been overstepped.”
Mr Rees-Mogg backed then-PM Boris Johnson for keeping Priti Patel on as home secretary despite her being found to have broken the ministerial code over bullying allegations.
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union representing senior civil servants, said: “Even by Rees-Mogg’s standards this is outrageous.
“A former leader of the House trivialising bullying that we know has ruined lives and careers.
“Not only should he be ashamed of himself but his leader and party should distance themselves from this.”
Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Florence Eshalomi added: “It speaks volumes that Jacob Rees-Mogg is seeking to belittle the serious claims of bullying and intimidation that have been made against the Deputy Prime Minister.
“He should be ashamed of himself. If Rishi Sunak was serious about his zero-tolerance approach, he would distance himself and his party from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s remarks.”
Last week, No 10 insisted the number of formal allegations against Mr Raab remained at eight but could not rule out each complaint including multiple accusers.
Speaking during a Cabinet awayday at his Chequers grace-and-favour retreat, Mr Sunak said he will await the outcome of Mr Tolley’s investigation before taking any action.
“I appointed an independent investigator to have a look at that matter. I’ll wait for that independent investigator to complete that investigation and report back to me,” he said.
Last week, Mr Raab insisted he is “always mindful of the way I behave”.
“I’m confident I behaved professionally throughout, and of course the Government takes a zero-tolerance approach to bullying,” he told the BBC.
The investigation centres on when Mr Raab was foreign secretary, Brexit secretary and during his first stint as justice secretary.
Last year, Lord McDonald alleged Mr Raab was so demeaning and abrasive to junior colleagues that many were “scared” to enter his office.
“Colleagues did not complain to me formally, it was kind of their professional pride to cope, but many were scared to go into his office,” the crossbench peer told Times Radio.
“His sort-of defence was that he treated everybody in the building in the same way. He was as abrasive and controlling with junior ministers and senior officials as he was with his private secretaries.”
Mr Sunak has pledged to take “whatever steps are necessary to restore the integrity back into politics”.
But Downing Street would not be drawn on whether the Prime Minister was told of informal concerns about Mr Raab’s behaviour when he made him his deputy.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Sunak had the “requisite information needed” to make the appointment and had acted swiftly by appointing Mr Tolley to investigate once formal complaints were made.