It’s been a busy few weeks down Mandarin Avenue. As a pleasant diversion from deciding which biscuits to have at elevenses, holding a few séances to establish government policy and turning nouns into new verbs, the Civil Service appear to have been indulging in its own spot of information hijinks, with some economic analysis turning up somewhere it shouldn’t. Naughty civil servants. Brexit minister Steve Baker responded by accusing us of being inaccurate, and then as a clarification, thoroughly bloody devious as well. I don’t know which one is more insulting. At times like these, it’s a standard Westminster cliché to refer to such events as being “A Bit Yes Minister”. Except even Jim Hacker never stood up in Parliament and called Sir Humphrey a useless lying bastard.
The relationship between civil servants and ministers is often a tricky one. In the past fortnight, this seems to have soured to near contempt. In my experience, it’s generally more strained with a Conservative administration. Which makes sense when you consider that every middle class, Oxbridge-educated, senior civil servant is actually a communist. I really must stop taking that hammer and sickle to work.
Leaks like this always touch the nerves of government ministers, regardless of what they say. Leaking documents to the press is their manor. If the miscreant was a remain-leaning civil servant, it may well have unintended consequences, calling into question civil service impartiality and giving any critic licence to condemn the validity of analysis, rather than engaging with the substance of it. This will likely dilute the organisation’s ability to deliver tough news to those in power. Which is bad news for everyone.
If it was leaked by a political Brexiteer for that very purpose, then it was a tactical master stroke. The next time I’m briefing a politician, and I’m describing anything more pessimistic than a future Britain resplendent in wealth, an immortal David Attenborough and unlimited cheddar for all, it will be tempting to ask: but do you believe me?
It’s quite something to be called untrustworthy by politicians. I doubt many of us will lose any sleep over it. I take great amusement in the fact that studies always highlight how much more the public trusts civil servants than politicians. If you think that we’re generally faceless, nameless bureaucrats for whom the public have little understanding, no sense of what the job is, what our titles mean or who we are, and still the public trust us more than elected officials, that’s something joyous to behold. The latest Institute for Government survey has trust for politicians at just above 21 per cent. Roughly one in five. I’d like to think that if you asked the Great British Public “Do you trust liars?” you’d probably get about one in five. But then maybe we doctored those figures as well.
All this unpleasantness draws into focus the delicate eco-system which officials and politicians, who often work so closely together, inhabit. It also highlights the huge policy space being left unoccupied by indecision at the top. Inevitably, someone is going to plug in the Policy Generator and attempt to fill that gap, because the fuse has been lit on the Brexit cannon and it’s high time we all climbed in.
In all fairness to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Baker did apologise afterwards. And he did say the allegation about Her Majesty’s Treasury fiddling the figures should have been investigated. It’s just something of a shame he didn’t investigate it with his own brain before he started talking nonsense about it.
But then this is a minister who has told officials that in Brexit the Movie (not The Musical – I’ve got the option on that) he wants to be played by Brad Pitt.
The question is: do you believe me?
The author is a civil servant in the British government, writing anonymously because Steve Baker probably won’t find any of this funny. While based on real events, parts of the above are embellished for comic effect.