Richard Heaton has become the latest permanent secretary to announce his retirement from the civil service. His departure from the Ministry of Justice continues the exodus of senior figures since the general election, and comes just a day after it was revealed that Mark Sedwill, the departing cabinet secretary, will receive a payout of almost £250,000.
It’s not uncommon for there to be changes at the top of the civil service when the prime minister changes, but the scope and circumstances are novel. Philip Rutnam, the departed permanent secretary at the Home Office, is suing the government for constructive dismissal. Sedwill is the shortest-lived cabinet secretary in modern times. And it means that taken together, the institutional leadership of the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the business department, and the Ministry of Justice will all have changed in a period of months – an unprecedentedly rapid turnover.
There are two reasons to be worried. The first is that the replacements in these jobs will replicate the pattern we’ve seen thus far in government appointments under Boris Johnson: roles will be filled by names that are already known to the Prime Minister and/or his closest advisers, and that groupthink and ideological conformity will become more, not less, common than it was before.
It is of course possible that when the dust settles, the government will genuinely have more science and engineering graduates at the top, more diversity of outlook and that the early pattern of hires won’t reflect the full spectrum. It is, however, thus far unproven and unless or until that happens, we should err on the side that it won’t.
The second problem is that it’s a huge amount of institutional change for the government to be managing at the same time as negotiating our first free trade agreement with the European Union, navigating our way out of lockdown, battling the novel coronavirus and seeking to end the deepest recession in modern history. The exodus further deepens the challenge the government faces – one they have, bluntly, never particularly looked like mastering.