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Paul Vallely: The Civil Service is being politicised  

03 July 2020

The PM wants officials who share his views, says Paul Vallely


The Prime Minister and Sir Mark Sedwill inside 10 Downing Street, in July 2019

The Prime Minister and Sir Mark Sedwill inside 10 Downing Street, in July 2019

BIG changes are afoot in the machinery of British government. It is now clear — despite the polite exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the outgoing Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill — that the latter was sacked. Commentators speculated that Boris Johnson was setting up the distinguished civil servant as a scapegoat for the incompetent government response to the coronavirus crisis.

Few will be fooled by that. On almost all ways of reading the figures, the UK — and England, in particular — has handled the crisis worse than any other nation in the G7. And bad decisions by politicians played a significant part in that.

But there is more to Sir Mark’s departure. Senior civil servants are increasingly the subject of anonymous malicious briefings by advisers in 10 Downing Street. Sir Simon McDonald is also having to stand down as head of the Foreign Office because the veteran diplomat is seen by Mr Johnson as “too much of a Remainer”. The former Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, Sir Philip Rutnam, is taking the Government to an employment tribunal, alleging bullying behaviour by Priti Patel.

Supporters of the Prime Minister claim that these Whitehall mandarins are impediments to progress, and that the Civil Service needs to be more amenable to “taking political direction”. Critics fear that what is going on is the politicisation of our famously neutral Civil Service.

The evidence points to the latter. Sir Mark is being replaced as National Security Adviser by Mr Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost. Theresa May is outraged at the idea: she asked scathingly in the House of Commons on Tuesday: “Why is the new National Security Adviser a political appointee with absolutely no national security experience?”

The answer must be that experience and institutional memory are no longer so important as sharing the Prime Minister’s view of the world. Mr Johnson clearly does not want to hear any counter-arguments, and prefers, instead, to sweep aside those who may try to hold his Government to account.

Something of the same impulse lay behind the recent announcement of the merger of the Foreign Office and the internationally respected Department for International Development (News, 19 June), whose work most aid experts, and three former prime ministers of both parties, have warned could now be jeopardised. More than two decades of aid that was focused on relieving poverty and pioneered standards in aid quality for the rest of the world could be replaced by projects aimed at promoting “the national interest”: an ideological rebalancing that the British public opposes by two to one, an opinion poll suggested last week.

All this is driven by the desire for short-term political advantage rather than intellectual consistency. Four years ago, Michael Gove was telling us that “the people in this country have had enough of experts.” This week, he made a speech setting out the case for reform in Whitehall on the grounds that it lacked “expertise” in areas “essential to public-policy decisions”.

Dominic Cummings, as ever, puts it more crudely, complaining that too many senior civil servants are “confident public-school bluffers” and “Oxbridge humanities graduates”. He has top mandarins in his sights. The irony is that his analysis might be brought to bear more aptly on Messrs Cummings, Gove, and Johnson themselves.

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