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24 April 2023

The Tories only have themselves to blame for antagonising the civil service

Through their collective bullying of Whitehall, Conservative ministers have inevitably made themselves a target.

By Martin Fletcher

Dominic Raab and his supporters in the de facto Ministry of Propaganda (the Telegraph, Mail, Sun and Express) are incandescent. They claim he was forced to resign as justice secretary and deputy prime minister last Friday by a cabal of “activist” civil servants who conspired against him.

A columnist for the normally measured ConservativeHome website wins the prize for making that charge most extravagantly. “This is a win for the Blob, the machine, the footling, inane bureaucracy of the idle perma-state,” he wrote. “From today forwards, ministers will find themselves hesitating before reprimanding an under-performing official or criticising sloppy work. Conspiratorial civil servants nursing a Brexit grudge will know any minister is only a few bullying claims away from a resignation. The duffers triumph, as Sir Humphrey swaddles himself in the cloak of victimhood. One despairs.”

But here’s the thing. Although Adam Tolley KC’s report portrays Raab as an unpleasant and aggressive man, I suspect there could be a grain of truth in his claim that officials colluded against him. Certainly the sudden flurry of leaks about his bullying behaviour late last year, some concerning incidents that had taken place three or four years earlier, looked a tad suspicious. Nor did civil servants lack a motive for wanting to bring him down.

Most of those denizens of Whitehall that I know are intelligent, educated people who witness first hand in their daily work the immense damage that Brexit is doing to this country, and privately regard it as a catastrophic mistake.

[See also: National Conservatism: the new Tory movement against globalism]

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That alone would not lead them to try and subvert this Conservative government: they understand that their constitutional role is to implement the policies of an elected executive. But the Tories’ attitude towards the civil service in general might. From the moment Boris Johnson became prime minister in July 2019 they have regarded the institution as the enemy. Paranoid, defensive and eager to find a scapegoat for their own failings, the party has mistaken the civil service’s neutrality for hostility. Hence the Conservatives have sought at every turn to undermine it, to politicise it, to bend it to their will, as they have the BBC and judiciary.

The civil service undoubtedly has faults, as most senior officials would admit. It is cautious, conservative and sometimes excessively bureaucratic. It is not good at innovation. It is underskilled on science and technology. But Johnson et al consciously rejected the path of constructive reform, preferring to engage in outright and deeply destructive confrontation. They set out to antagonise and alienate Whitehall.

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Thus Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief strategist, repeatedly and contemptuously dismissed the civil service as “the blob”, warned of “a hard rain coming”, and talked of bringing in “weirdos and misfits” capable of thinking outside the box. A succession of permanent secretaries or their equivalents – apparently labelled the “s**t list” by Johnson’s sides – were ousted for daring to offer the sort of candid, impartial advice that Johnson and his ministers did not want to hear.

[See also: The new Tory tribes]

The victims of what Anthony Seldon, the respected historian, and Raymond Newell call “the biggest cull of top officials in the entire history of the civil service” included Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, Simon McDonald at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Philip Rutnam at the Home Office, Jonathan Slater at the Department for Education, Richard Heaton at the Ministry of Justice, and Olly Robbins, Theresa May’s chief Brexit negotiator.

Liz Truss’s first act as prime minister was to oust Tom Scholar, the Treasury’s permanent secretary and embodiment of what she disdainfully dismissed as “Treasury orthodoxy”. Tory Brexiteers had been gunning for the Treasury ever since the 2016 referendum, blaming it for the Remain campaign’s “Project Fear”.

Most of the above were undermined before their sackings by vicious anonymous briefings in the Tory press. Most were replaced by weaker, less experienced and more malleable or ideologically compatible figures – the likes of Simon Case, the current Cabinet Secretary, and David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit negotiator.

Beyond that, Johnson sought to cull 91,000 civil servants to finance tax cuts – a populist gimmick quietly ditched by his successors. He refused to sack Priti Patel as home secretary even after an investigation found she had bullied civil servants. He appointed the gratuitously offensive Jacob Rees-Mogg as the minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency – a role Rees-Mogg used to berate civil servants for working from home post-Covid, and to leave sarcastic notes at their desks which read: “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”

As time went on, moreover, it became increasingly expedient for the government to blame the civil service for its own egregious failings – a complete reversal of the traditional code of individual ministerial responsibility.

Thus, in the middle of the Covid crisis, Johnson berated “the parts of government that seemed to respond so sluggishly that sometimes it seemed like that recurring bad dream when you’re telling your feet to run and your feet won’t move”. Thus Slater was made the scapegoat for Gavin Williamson’s abject performance as education secretary during the Covid lockdowns.

[See also: The quiet consensus: how Labour and the Tories are converging]

That ugly habit continues. Only last month Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, sent Tory supporters an email (which she later disowned) blaming “an activist blob of leftwing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour party” for the government’s failure to stop Channel crossings.

All in all, it would not be surprising if some civil servants did indeed see in Raab’s bullying an opportunity to get rid of a leading member of a government that has abused them so badly. Perhaps he sowed the seeds of his own destruction.

But there is a much broader concern here. The Conservatives have thoroughly demoralised the civil service, removed its most able leaders, and impaired its ability to recruit the brightest and the best. They have cowed it by showing that the way to advancement is not to offer ministers candid advice, but to tell them what they want to hear. They have corroded the essential trust between ministers and civil servants on which good governance depends.

Through their collective bullying of Whitehall, in other words, the Tories have turned the “Rolls Royce” civil service into the timid, ineffectual institution that they always claimed it was. Their criticisms have become self-fulfilling, and the consequences are painfully apparent.

Would Truss and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, have pressed ahead with their calamitous mini-Budget last October had they not been so contemptuous of “Treasury orthodoxy”? Would an official of Olly Robbins’ stature not have spotted the pitfalls of the Northern Ireland protocol? Would the government have wasted billions of pounds on personal protective equipment had it not bypassed normal public-sector procurement procedures during the Covid pandemic? I very much doubt it.

Seldon, the biographer of successive prime ministers, and Newell chronicle Johnson’s war with the civil service in their forthcoming book, Johnson at 10: The Inside Story, which is being serialised in the Times.

They conclude with this anecdote: “On his final full day as prime minister, Johnson had lunch with [Cabinet Secretary] Case. ‘I made a mistake alienating Whitehall so badly,’ he told him. To the end Johnson would say what he thought people wanted to hear. But experience nevertheless, not least in Covid and Ukraine, had taught him that officials served him often much better than his aides. His last day. Too late. Too late.”

How sad, and how tragic for the country.

[See also: Right-wing newspapers are killing the Tories with kindness]

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