01 July 2019

Jill Rutter argues that both politicians and civil servants need to act as though they understand the value of civil service impartiality.

The civil service finds itself in both Labour and Conservatives' crosshairs. Labour is demanding an inquiry into the briefings against Jeremy Corbyn, while the ritual sacrifice of Olly Robbins – Theresa May’s chief Brexit negotiator – is being triumphantly claimed by the campaign teams of the two Tory leadership contenders. These attacks, complaints and briefings are all reminders that the principle of civil service neutrality cannot be taken for granted.

The civil service needs to stop gossiping to the press about Labour 

Labour complains that the civil service has briefed journalists that Jeremy Corbyn is “too frail” to be Prime Minister. It’s not at all clear who “briefed”, or indeed whether the “briefing” was no more than a few comments at one of the many midsummer parties where civil servants find themselves mingling with journalists. Either way, it was enough to create headlines.

It is true that being Prime Minister is tough, but it is not up to the civil service to decide who is tough enough to take on the job. It is a decision for the respective parties, and it is then for civil servants to help make that decision work – in this case, they have the same status as someone on Gogglebox who complains that Jeremy Corbyn is clearly getting on a bit.

But careless talk costs reputations. If Labour wins the next election, then the civil service could be faced with an almost wholly inexperienced ministerial team who will be paranoid that anything other than devotion to the cause is grounds for suspicion. Idle chat can only fuel that paranoia, and it helps no one. So Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, needs to apologise to Labour on behalf of the civil service and then try to put a stop to the chatter. And Labour needs to lower the temperature too. A future Labour government will suffer if civil servants, fearing a backlash, bite their tongues when faced with ideas that they know will not fly.

The Conservatives need to contain their glee at the departure of Olly Robbins

But the status of the civil service is not just under attack from an inexperienced Labour frontbench. Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have indulged in the myth that the Prime Minister was a puppet of her lead Brexit negotiator and that a different Brexit outcome is possible if ministers lead the negotiations. Both camps have now claimed the prized scalp of the Brexiteers' pin-up hate figure, Olly Robbins.

Both Johnson and Hunt served in May’s Cabinet, so they both know full well that the Brexit strategy was the Prime Minister’s. They may not have liked Robbins’ advice – for example, over the Irish backstop – but it was the PM’s choice to take it, or not, and the decision to endorse it was the Cabinet’s. They may not have liked how secretively the Brexit negotiations were conducted – but again, this complaint is against the PM and not her adviser. It is to Theresa May’s eternal discredit that she has not defended her adviser herself.

If anything, Robbins has been forced to stay in post longer than he would have wanted – and he would hardly have relished going back to Brussels to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement when he had painstakingly negotiated it to meet May’s red lines. A new prime minister will also find that most of the civil servants who negotiated the deal, and their colleagues who had been leading on no deal planning, have already moved to other jobs. Continuity, rather than the need to change the old guard, will be the problem.

A scapegoat culture will not encourage qualified people to work on Brexit

One of Theresa May’s early mistakes was to reject inconvenient advice on how the EU would play the Brexit negotiations. Instead, she preferred the more comfortable counsel of those who told her that Brexit was a piece of cake which she could have and eat.

A new prime minister will need the best advice he can get. They don’t have to accept it – but they must accept the need to listen. If civil servants see their colleagues being impugned by the new leadership, and their advice being rubbished in the press, then anyone with a degree of ambition will run a mile before joining the new Prime Minister's Brexit team. 

Brexit and its fallout are putting British political institutions under levels of pressure which they have never seen before, and the crucial relationship between civil servants and elected politicians could suffer long-term damage as a result.  

To prevent that from happening, both parties need to recommit to the value of an impartial civil service – and the civil service must take care to recognise the value of protecting that impartiality.

Comments

Spot on.
I've seen elsewhere comments that Labour Shadow Ministers have been muttering that Treasury officials seem to have imbibed neoliberal economics and austerity and can see no other economic policies succeeding. Plainly, both sides need to start communicating.
I've worked in two Departments where Ministers didn't trust the majority of senior officials. It led to sub-optimal policy decisions : certainly not what the taxpayer bearing the cost of both the Ministers and Civil Servants should have had to put up with.