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Boris Johnson has declared his “confidence” in embattled home secretary Priti Patel.
The prime minister said Patel was doing a “fantastic” job despite the explosive resignation of Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam.
In an unprecedented on-camera statement on Saturday, Rutnam accused Patel of running an orchestrated briefing campaign against him, accused her of bullying and vowed to sue for constructive dismissal.
It has led to calls for Patel to be suspended from the government but Johnson stood behind his close cabinet ally.
During a visit to Public Health England in north London, the PM said: “I absolutely do have confidence in Priti Patel.
“I think she is a fantastic home secretary.
“It is never an easy job, as anyone who has been home secretary will testify. It is one of the toughest jobs in government.
“There is a big, big task ahead of us now. We are delivering, at last, a new immigration system for this country, a points-based immigration system.
“That will take a lot of work by the Home Office, a fantastic department.”
On Thursday, HuffPost UK revealed that Patel had wanted to move Andy Tighe, one of her most senior officials, out of the department on Christmas Eve and asked Rutman to deliver the news.
Rutnam refused to do so, believing it too cruel to effectively sack his colleague on Christmas Eve, HuffPost UK understands.
Rutnam’s refusal to carry out Patel’s orders is said to be one of the factors that has led to a breakdown in their relationship.
Relations between the pair were said to have deteriorated to such a level that Patel has blacklisted her permanent secretary’s staff and is cutting them out of regular day-to-day meetings.
Prior to Rutnam’s resignation there had been reports that Patel had demanded his removal and had been bullying Home Office staff.
On Sunday, shadow chancellor John McDonnell called for Patel’s suspension.
He told Ridge on Sunday on Sky News: “When you get a civil servant going public like this it’s unprecedented, I can’t remember a case like this so there must be something pretty bad that’s gone on.”
He added: “One of the ways the prime minister could go forward is have an independent investigation, but during that period you’d have to suspend the home secretary whilst that went on.”
Senior Tories rallied around Patel including former minister Nusrat Ghani, who suggested the criticism of the home secretary had sexist overtones.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said his cabinet colleague was “determined” but “extremely courteous” in her dealings with government officials.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme: “Priti is a very determined home secretary.
“She is probably closer to where the public are on the issues of law and order than any home secretary in recent history. I think she drives things forward.
“Now, I also think she is extremely courteous, and in every dealing I’ve had with her she has been very courteous.
“I can’t get into the details of the case, not least because it looks like it might be going to court and I’m not close to it.”