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13 March 2024

Gus O’Donnell: The insider’s guide to preparing for power

The former head of the civil service on the cost of Brexit, the case for electoral reform, and Keir Starmer’s “honesty and integrity”.

By George Eaton

They used to call him “God”. For six years, from 2005 to 2011, Gus O’Donnell bestrode Whitehall as cabinet secretary, the UK’s highest-ranked civil servant. He served three prime ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – and oversaw the formation of Britain’s first coalition government since 1945. As the civil service prepares for a likely Labour administration, and as critics assail Whitehall as “the blob” and the “deep state”, there are few better placed to offer an insider’s perspective.

I met O’Donnell, a youthful 71, at the office of Frontier Economics, the consultancy he chairs, in Holborn, central London. He defies the caricature of the “man in Whitehall”: cut-glass accent, public school education, Oxford PPE degree. O’Donnell attended a Catholic grammar school, read economics at the University of Warwick (after retaking his initially “dreadful” A-levels) and speaks with the vowels of his native south London. The prime minister he was closest to was “the boy from Brixton”, John Major, whom he served as No 10 press secretary from 1990 to 1994.

Today, O’Donnell is refreshingly candid about the defects of British democracy. “If you look at the Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of democracies, we don’t come in the top ten; we don’t do well and you can understand why.

“At the next election we could have millions of votes for Reform UK and no seats. Is that healthy for democracy? I don’t think so. Our first-past-the-post system has some very strong limitations.”

O’Donnell, who became a cross-bench peer after stepping down as cabinet secretary, is similarly sceptical towards the House of Lords. “We still have a lot of hereditary peers – is our expenses system correct? [O’Donnell does not claim the £342 daily attendance allowance.] Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of people in there who do really good work. But there are also a lot who make me think we need a better system.”

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Yet in the view of critics such as the former No 10 aide Dominic Cummings, the civil service itself is part of the problem. How does O’Donnell respond to the charge that Whitehall is irrevocably biased against disruptive projects such as Brexit?

“You find this all the time – I am massively in favour of an impartial civil service. One of the things I worry about in America, if Donald Trump wins, is that he is preparing to move Trump supporters into so many jobs. That’s really unhealthy. You observe countries where people are there because of political patronage and they’re going to be yes-men.

“To have a civil service that lives up to its name of giving honest and objective advice with integrity, you need to have an impartial civil service.”

Of Liz Truss’s recent declaration that the “deep state” thwarted her premiership, O’Donnell, a consummate diplomat, said: “I thought her comments were amusing… I think John McEnroe [the former tennis player] probably had the right answer: ‘You cannot be serious.’”

But, freed from the burden of impartiality, he is less restrained on the question of Brexit. “It’s fulfilling the economic forecasts that suggested it would have a very bad effect. To me it’s very sad; we haven’t been able to offset the obvious fact of tearing up one of the best trade deals we ever had with our largest trading partner. I hope that we can offset some of those costs and get a better relationship with Europe.”

He added: “I would have completely understood if people had said there is an economic cost from trade barriers but it’s offset by this gain in sovereignty… But the fact the economic costs were denied was one of the things about that Brexit referendum that left a bad taste in my mouth.”

The traditional pre-election “access talks” between the opposition and the civil service have begun. But this time they carry an added intensity: at no point since 2010 has Labour appeared likelier to replace the Conservatives in office. What advice would O’Donnell – who is in touch with shadow cabinet ministers including Rachel Reeves and Wes Streeting – give to the opposition?

“My advice to them is to be very clear about the outcomes they want to achieve and to leave a certain amount of flexibility as to how. With the best will in the world, they are not going to have access to all the material that the civil service can provide for them… It may be that the right answer in Blackpool is not the right answer in Liverpool or Manchester or Leeds – you’ve got to think about the local dimensions. Labour in particular will want to be talking to the likes of Andy Burnham about what works and what doesn’t work.”

Sue Gray, Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, was accused by some of compromising civil service impartiality when she stunned observers by swapping Whitehall for the Labour Party last year. But O’Donnell argues that “the ability to move between politics and the civil service is really important. Operating in the civil service is, to me, great training. I actually strongly favour more movement, [otherwise] it’s a bit like someone getting to the top of Tesco who has never worked at Tesco.”

O’Donnell said his memories of working with Gray are “all very fond. For me as cabinet secretary – she was my head of propriety and ethics – there would be very difficult scandals, sometimes of a sexual nature. These quite often required someone to go and talk to the minister involved to find out what actually happened. I can’t think of conversations I would less like to have. I was very lucky in having Sue, who would go off and come back with the truth.”

Gray’s preferred choice for the post of cabinet secretary under Labour is Olly Robbins, the former chief Brexit negotiator. “I worked with him a lot and he’s very, very good,” said O’Donnell. “But there’s no vacancy at the minute and when it comes to replacing the cabinet secretary I’m sure they’ll have a proper process. I see people mentioning his name but I think that’s incredibly premature.”

Of the current cabinet secretary, Simon Case, who recently returned from extended sick leave, he added: “I don’t know how long he will want to carry on. He’s done it for a long time now through very difficult circumstances. The one thing I can guarantee is that Labour will not treat Simon in the way Kwasi Kwarteng treated Tom Scholar [the Treasury permanent secretary who was abruptly sacked by the Truss government].”

Is Starmer’s time as director of public prosecutions an advantage as he prepares for No 10?It’s quite unusual, the Crown Prosecution Service; it’s not like DWP or the Treasury or the Ministry of Defence,” O’Donnell replied. “But he was at the Wednesday morning meeting when we’d all get together as perm secs and hash through some of the problems we were finding across government. He observed that for years – I’m sure that’s been good for his preparation.”

He added: “My experience of working with Keir is that he’s a man of great honesty and integrity and ability in the area that I observed him working in.”

For all his criticisms of the constitutional status quo, Gus O’Donnell retains an enduring faith in the UK. “I still believe that we have enormous strengths; our university base is fantastic. There’s a huge amount of private money that wants to be invested in the UK because we’ve got a fantastic rule of law… We’ve got all sorts of ways of influencing the world, which we should be using for good.”

Does he believe the civil service would welcome a change of government? “The civil service will be ready for whatever the British people produce.”  

[See also: Steve Reed: “Farmers feel shafted by this government”]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul