25 July 2019

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.

Comments

Excellent advice. But I wonder what havoc Dominic Cummings is going to wreak, with his position as the PM's right hand man and a longstanding aversion to the Civil Service (especially the senior mandarins) and a belief that it needs a thorough overhaul? It's being said that he comes into his new position with a plan, but how much is predicated on will rather than evidence or the pressure of circumstances remains to be seen. I fear that the Civil Service is facing a huge challenge from people who bear it ill will.

I am broadly in sympathy with this. I am however concerned with the use of the word "truth".

There are of course many statements that set out the reality and civil servants have a clear duty to warn ministers if they are danger of doing something that is highly imprudent - for instance disregarding the consequences of causing a delay in processing freight documentation at Dover.

There are however many statements that conform with the conventional wisdom but prove later to have been incorrect. As a former Treasury official, I am sure Jill can think of numerous occasions when the advice given to ministers in complete good faith has been to disregard outside analysis that later proved to be correct. The name Keynes springs to mind. The statements that civil servants made to ministers in these circumstances are ones that they believe to be true.

This problem is exacerbated in dealing with an area Jill has rightly signaled as important - big business - by the way in which the basis of accounting has moved from what (some) philosophers characterise as a correspondence theory of truth to a coherence theory of truth, so that accounts which provide the basis for much analysis of policy no longer reflect the actualite but just confirm compliance with rules and codes that in many cases generate a result that does not correspond with the reality of the company's financial position.

Also, in respect of Brexit, there is an ongoing (and largely irresolvable) argument over which economic forecasters were correct, an argument that often leads to allegations of not telling the truth or not being true.

The nature of truth is a very old argument, summarised by Pontius Pilate's question "What is truth?" (John 38:18 - λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος· Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια; )

Jill is right to say that there is an ethical problem here for civil servants. It might help if instead of using the phrase "truth to power" we spoke of "acting with integrity". Or am I simply opening another can of philosophical (and theological) worms?

hi Joe

yes - these are very important comments - and very often what we mean by "truth" is best guesses. Forecasts can be both honest and wrong (Ken Clarke used to always take HMT forecasts with a pinch of salt and accuse us of not living in the real world..) -- and views about eg EU reaction can be informed reasoning but can turn out to be wrong.. and Ministers are always entitled to use a different frame - which they are using on Brexit - by saying the political damage of not leaving trumps the economic risks of leaving with no deal ..

I always remember an early example in the Thatcher govt. the official in charge of privatisation policy produced an analysis of the vfm of privatising BT - and Nigel Lawson told him this was not a decision that turned on vfm - it was just the right thing to do.. so do it. Which he did. The problem is when Ministers make decisions for values reasons but dress it up on an evidence base that does not stack up.