04 January 2017

The resignation letter of Sir Ivan Rogers was a clarion call to ‘speak truth to those in power’. Dr Catherine Haddon says that role will be just as crucial for his successor. 

Since this blog was written Sir Tim Barrow, a senior diplomat and former Ambassador to Russia, has been appointed as the UK Ambassador to the EU. 

Britain’s impartial civil service is at the core of our system of government – civil servants work under an elected government and exist to implement the Government’s policies.  

At the heart of our system is the theory that a permanent body of officials be retained to work for successive governments, whatever their policies. This allows expertise to build up and be drawn on to provide frank and fearless advice to politicians. But they then must be prepared to abide by the decision once it is made. 

Rogers’ extraordinary departure throws into sharp relief the difficulties of managing this balancing act.  

We have seen criticism of the civil service for being too reluctant over Brexit: that their mindset is too focused on the old way of dealing with Europe and they need to embrace the new, pro-Brexit world.  

To be fair, the civil service can have difficulty adjusting to new realities. In 1997, they struggled to adjust to the incoming Labour government’s ways of working, communication style and personalities. Then in 2010, some civil servants had grown so used to New Labour’s approach it took time to realise how much of that was anathema to new Conservative ministers.

However, blindly trying to please a new government – saying yes too much – can also be dangerous. Rushed policies and a desire to be seen delivering led to a number of policy U-turns and embarrassments after 2010. Universal Credit is a prime example of how a good news culture can badly damage policy in the long run. 

Rogers’ resignation will be interpreted in some quarters as part of a similar adjustment process. It is suggested that he was tainted by the previous government’s policies – and the renegotiation deal in particular. Actual public resignations by civil servants are extremely rare, so there is no downplaying the significance of this one.

But the fact that these tensions exist are not so worrying. It would be worse if there were no signs of uncomfortable truths being raised by officials. It also may embolden his successor, whoever that may be.

And his successor may well be a political appointment. But contrary to alarmist reports that the civil service risks being politicised if so, ambassadors are not appointed in the same manner as other senior civil servants and can be political nominees. In fact, they have a history of being so on rare occasions: James Callaghan appointed his own son-in-law, the broadcaster and economist Peter Jay, to Washington; Tony Blair appointed Paul Boateng to South Africa; and Ed Llewellyn, former Chief of Staff to David Cameron, was recently appointed to be the UK’s Ambassador to France.

With the departure of Rogers, the Government should be very wary of the loss of too much European expertise. However, whoever Theresa May appoints will need to be as versatile in understanding the current government as the EU and its member states. But she should also want someone who can be just as willing to break out the uncomfortable truth.

Governments need their awkward squads in government, but they also don’t want them to become the story. The civil servants coming to the fore now – both those heading the key departments and the next Ambassador to the EU, if it is an official – will have to command the confidence of Brexiteers, but also the responsibility of advising and delivering the best deal. At the moment, achieving both is proving to be a tough call for Whitehall.

The Prime Minister has already criticised Whitehall for being too willing to tune messages to what they think she wants to hear, claiming she wants them to perform their role of giving the ‘best possible advice’. She needs to put that into practice in who she appoints to take Rogers’ place, and in giving them the freedom and support to provide that advice. 

Comments

The decline in the willingness and/or ability of civil servants to give frank advice seems to me to have tracked the salami slices of increasing ministerial involvement in senior appointments – and more damagingly because it is totally uncontrolled – the removal of civil servants deemed to be difficult or lacking 'chemistry' with the temporarily incumbent minister.

It is natural for ministers to feel that they want to head up a united team and there are systems where that option is available. Later this month we can watch how the Trump presidency gets on with that one.

Rogers was indeed tainted and should have resigned when Cameron did - he was private secretary to Kenneth Clarke, put in place by Cameron and was responsible for the disastrous Cameron negotiation with the EU before the referendum. His political position was quite clear.
By his actions - Is it any wonder that Mrs May and her team are reluctant to discuss our Brexit negotiation detail with our current civil service. How long before it was leaked to the Guardian and being dissected by the BBC for the benefit of Brussels??

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