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The civil service must speak truth to Boris (and his Cabinet)

As civil servants across Whitehall begin to brief their new secretaries of state, there is a risk that they fetter their potentially unwanted advice.

As civil servants across Whitehall begin to brief their new secretaries of state, Jill Rutter warns of the risk that they fetter their potentially unwelcome advice to the new Government.

The civil service is probably facing the new Government with more trepidation than any other in recent history. 

The Prime Minister notably sided with the US President rather than the UK’s Ambassador in the row over leaked cables – and the new Foreign Secretary was sent out to bat for the new Prime Minister’s defence, suggesting that Sir Kim Darroch had been unwise to include “personalised remarks” in his diptels.

The new Home Secretary Priti Patel was sacked for playing fast and loose with the rules on ministerial conduct in her previous role as International Development Secretary. Her Permanent Secretary will have to keep her within the bounds of propriety as she takes over a much more sensitive job.

The new Education Secretary Gavin Williamson already has form on his personal antagonism towards the Cabinet Secretary after his sacking as Defence Secretary.  

And, Dominic Cummings, author of countless words on the shortcomings of Whitehall and the senior mandarinate (many of them deserved, some less so) has been appointed as the PM’s adviser-in-chief – and controller of the political adviser operation across the Government.

Outgoing ministers paid delayed tribute to civil service advice – but many new ministers have form on discrediting it

But as one administration left and another took over, it was notable that a number of outgoing ministers, including the former Prime Minister, paid rather heavy-handed tribute to their civil servants and the importance of their impartial advice. No doubt this was well meant – and many of those paying tribute were probably ministers who had enjoyed good working relationships with civil servants.

But those tributes came late. What was even more notable was how reluctant Theresa May was, while  in office, to stand up for the civil service and defend them from attacks from the Brexiteer wing of her party.

Many of the new appointees have spent much of the May Government on the backbenches, where they have built up form in rubbishing evidence from officials. The Treasury may think it dodged a bullet with the appointment of Sajid Javid as Chancellor – and with the Office for Budget Responsibility tasked with producing the official forecast to accompany the Budget. But the new Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, has already decried the value of Treasury forecasts, and the new Leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, used his position on both the Treasury Select Committee and the Exiting the EU Committee to take on the Bank of England over its gloomy forecasts. 

New ministers need to make clear they want honest advice on no deal, not reassuring platitudes

A more pressing concern is how prepared ministers are to listen to advice on the practicalities of no deal. They immediately need the frankest possible advice from their civil servants if they are to have any chance of properly addressing the risks. 

The handover problems are likely to be most acute in the departments which were headed up by anti-no deal Cabinet ministers. The Treasury may face accusations of holding back cash for no deal preparations. BEIS might be accused of being too in the thrall of anti-Brexit big business and not prepared to seize opportunities. In Defra, Michael Gove appeared convinced of the need for transition to prevent disruption to farming and fishing. He will take that knowledge into his new role as no deal supremo, and his successor will need to be quickly hauled up the same learning curve. 

The person who most needs to listen is the new Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith. He has a full in-tray – the need to keep the power-sharing talks on the road but also the possibility of having to impose direct rule in the event of no deal – and the knowledge that there is no credible plan for managing the fallout from no deal in Northern Ireland. One of Smith’s selling points for his new job is his close relationship with the Democratic Unionist Party, but as Northern Ireland Secretary he needs to be able to act as an honest broker between the parties. Most of all he needs to listen to what the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the Police Service of Northern Ireland are telling him about no deal – and then make sure that their advice is plugged immediately in to No.10 and the Cabinet Office.

The Prime Minister needs to confound expectation and be willing to listen

The most worrying message will have come from the Prime Minister himself. Boris Johnson’s emphasis on seeing off the “gloomsters” who talk down Britain’s prospects will suggest that he wants to shut his ears to anyone who does not believe in his optimism project. That is a risky course.

Brexit is an article of faith, rather than a pragmatic choice, for many Brexiteers. Many suspect that the civil service do not share this belief in Brexit –  and will want to disregard their advice or bypass them entirely as a result. But belief alone will not deliver a renegotiated deal, nor overcome the realities of no deal. The Government needs a proper plan, informed by the best advice that the civil service can offer.

Civil servants
Johnson government
Institute for Government

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