The most senior civil servant in the Home Office was made aware of allegations that Suella Braverman wanted civil service help in dealing with a speeding fine, the Guardian understands.
The development raises questions about how many other senior officials and ministers across Whitehall were then informed about the claims, and puts pressure on the prime minister to order an investigation into the allegations.
Matthew Rycroft, the department’s permanent secretary, was told about the home secretary’s alleged request to set up a private driving awareness course in the autumn, informed sources said.
Braverman had made the request to another senior civil servant who “had concerns about whether it was appropriate”, it is understood, so had reported it to the top official.
The home secretary insisted she had done “nothing untoward” as she battled to save her job. She admitted speeding, and said she had paid a fine and taken penalty points on her licence, but did not deny asking officials for help.
Her team have suggested that she did not instruct officials to arrange a course, but merely asked for their advice. That has been disputed by sources elsewhere in government.
Rishi Sunak is still considering whether to order an investigation into allegations the home secretary breached the ministerial code by asking taxpayer-funded officials to assist with a private matter.
Downing Street pointedly refused to back Braverman’s assertions that she had done nothing wrong after the speeding charge last year, instead saying Sunak was “availing” himself of the information.
The prime minister confirmed that he had spoken to his ethics adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, over the issue, although no formal inquiry has yet begun. The adviser cannot begin an investigation without Sunak’s authorisation.
During a statement in the Commons on the G7, he said: “I have always been clear that where issues like this are raised, they should be dealt with properly and they should be dealt with professionally.
“I have been receiving information on the issues raised, I have met with both the independent adviser and the home secretary. I have asked for further information and I will update on the appropriate course of action in due course.”
When taking his seat in the Commons prior to his statement, Sunak was seen patting Braverman on the back in a visible show of support.
Magnus could request all emails and messages sent within the Home Office and between departments if he is asked to investigate the matter. One source said that Braverman’s request to officials was in email form, meaning Magnus could see it.
The civil servant who was approached by Braverman was working as an acting staff member in her office, it is understood. The temporary role was meant to help ease the home secretary into her new position after the recent sacking of her predecessor, Priti Patel.
Sources said the civil servant “was concerned” about the request and informed Rycroft. The Home Office has been approached for a comment.
In her first public comments on the row, Braverman did not deny asking civil servants to intervene. Asked directly about the claims, she said: “Last summer, I was speeding. I regret that. I paid the fine and I took the points but we’re focused now on delivering for the British people and working for them.”
Pressed on the same question, she said: “In relation to the process, I’m focused on delivering for the British people, doing my job as home secretary and what I will say is that, in my view, I’m confident that nothing untoward has happened.”
The home secretary then appeared for a regular session of Home Office questions in the Commons, telling MPs: “I paid the fine and I took the penalty and at no point did I attempt to evade sanction.”
Discussions between senior figures in No 10 and the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics office over the weekend continued into Monday. With Sunak still to make a decision about whether to launch an inquiry, Whitehall insiders suggested that he was “gaining a reputation for being indecisive”.
There was said to have been “no hold-up” from the Cabinet Office’s side, with all information held by the department provided to Downing Street. Braverman’s aides had sought to get the government to publish a bulleted timeline explaining what happened when – but been blocked from doing so.
Many Tory MPs still think there could be a reasonable explanation for Braverman asking questions about whether she could take the speed awareness course. But they still want her to “come clean”. A government source said Braverman’s “inability to answer straight questions in the Commons” had rattled nerves.
Tobias Ellwood, the Tory chair of the defence select committee, told Times Radio on Monday: “MPs get speeding fines as do members of the public, I think we’ve got a couple of ministers that have been banned from driving, you know, they put their hand up, they pay their fine.
“What you don’t do is pull strings or use your connections to try and cover up what you’re doing or find an easier route out.”
Allies of the home secretary defended her, with former cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting there was no need for an investigation. He told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “I would have thought the prime minister could think this through pretty clearly, that this is not a big story.”
He added: “What goes on in private offices is that a minister is busy, has many things to do and sometimes will ask for something that civil servants can’t do. But as long as, once they’ve said no, you accept it, then you haven’t done anything wrong.”
Philip Rycroft, former permanent secretary at the Brexit department, told the BBC: “This, on the face of it, I think, is a breach of the ministerial code. The code is very clear. Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises or appears to arise between their public duties and their private interests.”
The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, said Braverman should resign if she is found to have broken the ministerial code. Sanctions for lesser misdemeanours include a public apology and docking pay.