Hard rain coming: Inside the Whitehall revolution

George Peel examines Downing Street’s ruthless approach to civil service reform

Photo by WILL OLIVER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10771977f)
Photo by WILL OLIVER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10771977f)

Early in July, Conservative MP Mark Francois had some clear advice for chief of the defence staff General Sir Nick Carter: “Please nip back to the department and ask them to sort their bloody selves out. Because if not, Cummings is going to come down and sort you out his own way, and you won’t like it.” The context was defence procurement, one of those perennial bureaucratic problems. The professional head of the armed forces gave a wry smile in response, no doubt already aware of what would be published in the Sydney Morning Herald hours later, that Dominic Cummings was to visit top-secret MOD sites including the SAS and Porton Down.

For those who abhor government waste, the MOD is an easy target, and although the long-promised assault on this department has been put to rest by Covid-19, there is definitely a feeling that it will resurface when the delayed integrated security, defence and foreign policy review comes out. Some action has, nonetheless, already been taken with the Department for International Development’s recent merger with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, forming the FCDO. Such action has proved popular with certain ardent supporters of civil service reform who might view a pandemic as the perfect opportunity to reset the entire structure of government. Yet a merger is not in itself out of the ordinary.

Since the Brexit referendum alone we have seen the creation and abolition of DExEU, the establishment of the Department for International Trade and a merger creating the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. The FCDO merger is just another example in a long list of playing around with government departments.

But by and large the FCDO merger has been interpreted as having a deeper message, at one level warning the civil service that this government is not afraid of making big changes to the make-up of Whitehall, and at another satisfying swathes of the Conservative Party who have long been cynical about the foreign aid budget. Many have been extremely critical of the move, with Sarah Champion, chair of the international development committee, tweeting that it was a “hostile takeover & hugely damaging for U.K. credibility”. By contrast, foreign affairs select committee chair and Conservative moderate Tom Tugendhat welcomed the opportunity for the UK to better coordinate its foreign policy and aid priorities. But if the FCDO were our sole data point, it would be impossible to identify any trend in shaking up the civil service, although frequent media reports have led many to identify this merger as a signal of what is to come.

 Exit strategies 

More striking than structural reform is the change in personnel at the highest level of the civil service. Sir Mark Sedwill’s resignation opened the door to two new appointments: Simon Case as the new cabinet secretary, and David Frost as the national security adviser. The appointment of special adviser Frost, in addition to his existing chief negotiator role in EU trade talks, sent shockwaves through Whitehall. In a further act of political patronage, Frost was ennobled, thoroughly smudging the line between impartial government officials and political appointees. Lord Frost may have served as ambassador to Denmark, more than attesting to the diplomatic credentials all his national security adviser predecessors have had, but Theresa May was excoriating in her remarks in the House of Commons, decrying the lack of neutrality such an overtly political appointment to such a senior role inevitably risks.

Sedwill’s departure appears premature, having been in the post for less than two years. He told parliament’s national security strategy committee that his resignation was by agreement between the prime minister and himself, but also took the opportunity to remark that top civil servants are now “fair game” in the media and will likely have to endure in the future hostile briefings similar to those which preceded his announcement.

Sedwill’s resignation came less than a fortnight after the country’s top diplomat, Sir Simon McDonald, also agreed to stand down. Murmurings had long surrounded his position at the Foreign Office with concerns he epitomised a pro-EU diplomatic service seeking to thwart Brexit. It is perhaps noteworthy that Sir Philip Barton, the new permanent under-secretary at FCDO, for the most part proved himself without the European Union. Perhaps his recent high commission experience in India and Pakistan is seen as a boon to a global Britain, although perhaps such thinking is spurious and there was no recruitment criteria beyond the best person for the job.

Losing two such senior securocrats in such a short space of time could perhaps be coincidental, but a third top mandarin, Sir Richard Heaton, then announced in early July he would not be seeking an extension to his five year contract at the Ministry of Justice. These departures come on the back of Sir Philip Rutnam, former Home Office permanent secretary, whose relationship with Priti Patel so broke down that he felt obliged to resign in February this year.

Two more high-profile departures came in August and September. First Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary of the Department for Education, was forced out after a stressful handling of exam results. This, incidentally, came two days after Sally Collier, former chief executive of Ofqual, tendered her resignation. The timing of Slater’s announcement was telling. Hours after Boris Johnson blamed a “mutant algorithm” on the exam results debacle, the DfE confirmed “the Prime Minister has concluded that there is a need for fresh official leadership”.

Then in September, Sir Jonathan Jones, the most senior official at the Government Legal Department appeared to announce his resignation on principle, an unheard phenomenon for the impartial civil service. It seemed that the government, including the attorney general, had gone against not only the department’s clear advice (on the latest proposed Brexit bill over concerns to the status of Northern Ireland) but also that of an independent barrister (according to The Guardian). The British government appears to be in a minority on this issue, with the EU and the Democrats in America horrified at the proposals, and it is astonishing that any minister would ever even consider putting Sir Jonathan in such a compromised position.

Mandarins juiced 

FDA (the union for senior civil servants) general secretary Dave Penman deplored the government’s action in the case of Slater, saying that “if it wasn’t clear before, then it certainly is now – this administration will throw civil service leaders under a bus without a moment’s hesitation to shield ministers from any kind of accountability”.

He also warned that “trust between ministers and civil servants is already at an all-time low and this will only damage it further”. Contributing to this nadir are the efforts of ministers in encouraging civil servants back to the office as an example to the rest of the country, something not well received by the Public and Commercial Services union or the FDA.

Penman’s message is an uncompromising critique of a trend of high-profile departures in inauspicious circumstances, which can be given greater context by a Daily Telegraph report of a “hit list” of officials Number 10 wanted to replace. The structure of the civil service means that there are a number of officials moving around, and out, of roles every year. But at some point coincidence turns into a trend, and to lose all but one of the most senior mandarins at the great offices of state might be thought more than careless on the part of a government.

Stormy weather 

At the forefront of the government effort to improve the civil service lie minister Michael Gove and adviser Dominic Cummings, both of whom have made speeches and written blogs extensively calling for an eradication of “groupthink” and an influx of specialists at the highest levels. Getting rid of five permanent secretaries in the last few months (whether by happenstance or design) is just the start.

Yet amid all the grand plans of Cummings and Gove to move thousands of civil servants beyond London to places like Manchester and York (along with the much more extensive scheme to overhaul local government, as reported in The Sunday Times), the civil service will not just roll over. Enter new cabinet secretary Simon Case, hand-picked from the Duke of Cambridge’s private office by Boris Johnson earlier this year to help with the Covid-19 response, and again directly encouraged by the prime minister to apply for the most esteemed of civil service posts.

Superficially on loan from Kensington Palace, Case has been catapulted to the top of the civil service as the youngest cabinet secretary since 1916. He is clearly trusted by the Johnson administration and it is easy to see why. He has no dearth of experience in Number 10, but is not a born and bred bureaucrat either. With experience outside Whitehall at GCHQ as well as working for the royals, he is seen as someone who gets on with the job as opposed to a hindering Sir Humphrey. And although he will be the youngest permanent secretary bar one, supporters of his appointment include historian Peter Hennessy who has spoken favourably about his former PhD supervisee.

It will be for Case to bridge the gap between Cummings and Gove and the civil service. Yet amid all the commentary about Whitehall reform, remarkably little has been said about HM Treasury, whose power and influence needs no introduction. In an August blog for LSE, academics Dave Richards, Diane Coyle, Martin Smith and Sam Warner state that Gove’s vision of civil service reform (as presented in the Ditchley Annual Lecture earlier this year) has been around for over half a century, but no previous efforts have been able to take on the might of the Treasury. They argue that “meaningful Whitehall reform is conterminously linked to the need for real fiscal devolution”. Having a joint economic policy unit between Number 10 and the Treasury might affect the creation of policy, but it won’t help with the structural change of Treasury power in Whitehall.

Dominic Cummings has said that “hard rain” is going to fall on the civil service. So far we’ve seen a major department merger, prominent permanent secretary departures, and countless newspaper reports of more to come. So a drizzle may have started, but if the media rumours are correct, Whitehall could well be due a deluge.

4th October 2020