The Brexit battering ram turns on Whitehall

By on 17/07/2019
Sir Bernard Jenkin – chair of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (Image courtesy: EventPics.Biz).

Having wrecked two administrations and divided the country, Brexit is now undermining the UK’s unwritten constitution as senior civil servants become caught up in Britain’s poisonous politics. In the wake of the US ambassador’s resignation, Matt Ross heard the fears of politicians, union leaders and commentators from across the political spectrum

Last week, Sir Bernard Jenkin – chair of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and a prominent Brexiteer – told a story that vividly captures the ethos of the UK civil service.

On the day after the country voted to leave the EU in June 2016, Jenkin recalled, he met former cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood: “I teased him as he bounced in with a big smile, as he always did. I said: ‘I expected to find you miserable and beleaguered, because we’re leaving the EU and that’s not what you wanted.’ And he chirped: ‘Well, we’ve got a new policy and we’re going to have a new prime minister. We’ve got to turn the whole thing on a sixpence – but that’s what we do.’”

Under the 1854 ‘Northcote-Trevelyan’ model – neatly illustrated by the late cabinet secretary’s reaction – Britain has a permanent civil service, with officials remaining in place to serve governments of all stripes. But the settlement is coming under huge pressure. And on the day Jenkin spoke, addressing an event on civil service impartiality organised by civil service managers’ union the FDA, Britain’s ambassador to the USA had been forced out following a leak that wrecked his relationship with the American president.

A successful plot

Sir Kim Darroch’s cables to prime minister Theresa May, leaked to the Mail on Sunday, were highly critical of Trump’s character and administration – prompting angry tweets from the president, who said he’d “no longer deal” with Darroch. But the ambassador only quit after Boris Johnson, who is expected to become prime minister later this month, repeatedly refused to confirm that he’d keep Darroch in post.

The ambassador’s fate dismayed many at the House of Lords event, held to launch a collection of essays named ‘Impartiality matters’. For in his cables, Darroch had simply been doing his job: providing the current PM with his honest, frank opinion of the situation in the USA. And the episode exemplified two worrying trends: the rise of personal attacks on civil servants, and a growing tendency for ministers not to defend embattled officials.

“We have witnessed over the last few days a plot to oust the most senior diplomat in the country,” said Dave Penman, the FDA’s general secretary. And Darroch’s treatment is part of a pattern: Penman pointed to high-profile attacks on both cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and Olly Robbins, May’s Brexit pointman. “We’re seeing increasingly a modus operandi among politicians of attacking civil servants,” he commented.

These attacks, Penman warned, are growing in frequency and ferocity – in part because ministers are refusing to come to their officials’ defence. “Ministers whose responsibility it is to defend civil servants have chosen not to,” he said. “That silence among politicians, who’ve failed to criticise their fellow politicians… has created an environment where that becomes the new normal.”

Structural threats

Dave Penman, the FDA’s general secretary (Image courtesy: EventPics.Biz).

This represents a major threat to the Northcote-Trevelyan system, which rests on the convention that because civil servants are required to carry out ministers’ instructions, ministers are responsible for their officials’ actions. Civil servants are expected to ‘speak truth to power’, providing open and honest advice to ministers on how best to achieve their goals, then to implement their political masters’ decisions.

So impartiality isn’t the same as neutrality or independence, pointed out Sir David Normington – who, as first civil service commissioner 2011-16, was responsible for safeguarding both impartiality and the merit-based appointments system. “The civil service works for the government of the day, because the government of the day is elected; and then it works for the next one, and the next one,” he said. “And because impartiality means serving the government of the day with energy and commitment, it’s a way of getting things done.”

This system depends on trust between elected leaders and their officials; it can be “vulnerable”, Normington added, when civil servants become “nervous of giving honest advice, or seek preferment by giving ministers advice that they think ministers want to hear.” But this is in nobody’s interests – for such advice will be poorer.

Slippery slope

Over the last 10-15 years, Normington continued, “there has been a decline in trust at the top between civil servants and ministers, with more briefing against civil servants”. And then came Brexit.

As the Tory party splintered over its approach to EU exit negotiations, he explained, May’s lead officials became lightning rods for the anger of hard Brexiteers – many of whom were determined to block May’s negotiated Withdrawal Agreement deal, and saw the civil service as part of a Remain-backing ‘establishment’.

“The civil service has got caught up in the divisive politics of Brexit,” he said. “Some civil servants are forever associated with that negotiated deal that is unloved and unsupported. I believe the civil service did what it was asked to do by the government of the day, and I believe it did it superbly well. But for the passionate supporters of Brexit – including some who are ministers in the government – the civil service’s commitment to painstaking negotiations and compromises and finding ways through is the evidence that they were seeking that the civil service is part of an establishment plot to thwart the wishes of the British people. It’s complete nonsense!”

Have they got our backs?

Sir David Normington (Image courtesy: EventPics.Biz).

Normington’s analysis was powerfully echoed by Jill Rutter, programme director at think tank the Institute for Government. Ever since the 2017 general election at which May lost her Commons majority, she said, “we’ve had political paralysis on very big decisions, and a breakdown of collective cabinet responsibility the likes of which I’ve never seen.”

“Olly Robbins is not the UK’s lead negotiator in any meaningful sense,” she explained. “These were the prime minister’s negotiations, and he was executing the prime minister’s strategy. If you don’t like it, though, it’s much easier if you’re an MP to attack Olly Robbins than to attack the prime minister full frontally; and that’s why Olly Robbins has been there as a human shield.”

Yet the PM, she added, has failed to publicly back her Sherpa: “It is to Theresa May’s eternal discredit that she hasn’t stood up. All we have is one quote from her at the [Tory backbenchers’] 1922 committee that: ‘I am not a puppet of Olly Robbins.’ She actually should have been taking full responsibility, saying: ‘No, this is my deal, these are my negotiations, what he’s doing is what I asked him to do. If you don’t like it, don’t go after him; go after me’.”

Many of the Brexiteers attacking civil servants, Rutter argued, simply don’t understand the concept of an impartial civil service. One MP, she noted, “asked Olly Robbins at the European Scrutiny Committee: ‘In your heart, do you believe in Brexit?’ And for me, that went to the crux of it. Do people get that it is not the role of civil servants to believe, or not to believe, in Brexit? It is their role, as Olly rightly said, to take forward the policy of the government of the day.”

Mixed signals

Jenkin, though a passionate Brexit campaigner, also challenged the idea that civil servants have attempted to derail the government’s plans. “There’s a stronger and stronger false narrative – particularly among eurosceptics – which I do not share: that there’s a ‘deep state’ which has beguiled the politicians in our relationship with the EU, and is now preventing us from getting out,” he said.

These suspicions, he added, are “buttressed by something which is perfectly true”: that most civil servants, given the choice, would prefer to remain in the EU. They’re entitled to hold those opinions, Jenkin said, and “the vast majority keep their views to themselves, and are very professional about that.” But he pointed out that many former permanent secretaries have publicly criticised both the concept and delivery of Brexit, in interventions that “have advertised that there is a kind of ‘house view’ in much of Whitehall”.

Here, Jenkin found support from some of his fellow panellists. “Ex-civil servants haven’t helped their successors by some of the ‘noises off’ that we’ve heard,” commented Rutter. “They’re entitled to their views, but I think they need to be a bit more reflective about the environment they’re creating for the people who are left”.

Take responsibility

Jill Rutter, programme director, Institute for Government (Image courtesy: EventPics.Biz).

But Jenkin agreed that Brexit owes its tortuous evolution to the actions of politicians, not civil servants. “I should imagine a great many civil servants are as disappointed as many others that the government has been divided and uncertain and conflicted, leaving civil servants in an impossible position,” he said.

For the government to deliver Brexit, he argued, it must emulate previous leaders who entered government determined to challenge the status quo – such as Churchill in 1940, Attlee in 1945 and Thatcher in 1979. These PMs, he said, set a clear direction, kept control of their parties, and “judiciously promoted” supportive officials without compromising civil service impartiality.

“Maybe there’s a lesson for an incoming prime minister: that you have to show some leadership to the Whitehall machinery if you want it to change direction,” Jenkin commented. “You have to appoint ministers who are capable of dealing with the conflicting advice they’re receiving [and] able to withstand the pressure of the orthodox against the new.”

“So my advice to my eurosceptic colleagues is: stop blaming the civil service,” he added. “We as politicians should take responsibility for what has been decided by ministers.”

It’s not only the right that’s wrong

While much of the discussion focused on attacks from the right, Penman pointed out that the problem exists “across the political spectrum. There’s a weird coalescing of the left and right, where they talk about an ‘elite’, an ‘establishment’, and they view the civil service as part of that.” And Lord McConnell, the Labour first minister of Scotland 2001-07, criticised those “people calling for civil servants to be sacked by incoming administrations because they’ve implemented government policy” – an apparent reference to Remain campaigner and fellow Labour member Lord Adonis, who tweeted that he’d be “pressing for dismissal of permanent secretaries” who’ve undertaken planning for a No Deal exit.

Baroness Chakrabarti, Labour’s shadow attorney general, acknowledged that some of her colleagues are sympathetic to the ‘deep state’ viewpoint. “You can imagine that some of the ‘comrades’ may have that narrative too,” she said – but Chakrabarti, a former Home Office lawyer, made clear that she doesn’t share it. “We believe in impartiality in the public service,” she said.

Attacks on the civil service, she argued, can only undermine governments’ ability to realise their goals. “The system will absolutely crumble, and governments will be much the poorer, and international relations and the rules-based system will be all the poorer, if we carry on this way,” she said.

Don’t break the system that serves you

Baroness Chakrabarti, Labour’s shadow attorney general (Image courtesy: EventPics.Biz).

For as Penman pointed out, the growing perils facing officials threaten not just recruitment and retention, but also the quality of advice provided to ministers. “There’s no doubt that as a result of Kim Darroch’s resignation, there will be many civil servants saying: ‘This is not for me. They want my impartial, frank advice, but when it’s inconvenient I won’t be defended; I’ll be thrown under the bus’,” he commented.

And attempts to undermine the Northcote-Trevelyan system, warned Jenkin, risk embroiling politicians in a losing battle. “My advice to any prime minister: the worst thing you could possibly do would be to try to get rid of this system,” he said. “Because you would put yourself at war with one of the most resilient institutions I have ever come across, and it would win. This is an institution that has to be won over and seduced and convinced by proper leadership and proper argument. The civil service has shown above all that it is going to outlast any government; and its resilience should be seen as a strength, not an obstacle.”

For Normington, it’s not yet clear whether the civil service’s travails are “a passing crisis, or an existential threat to the British way of government.” But it’s “very troubling”, he said, that Darroch has been “deliberately targeted”. And he condemned the “growing tendency to target and name individual civil servants who’ve been doing their job – and will do the job for the next government, if they’re given the chance, with the same passion and commitment.”

“The next prime minister can be absolutely certain that civil servants are preparing to support him now to the best of their ability,” he concluded. “Let’s hope that the next prime minister offers the same loyalty back.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

One Comment

  1. Chris Ashley

    18/07/2019 at

    As ever, language is crucial.

    If the Civil Service spoke consistently of Brexit in terms of “risks and opportunities”, then no one could complain about the Civil Service’s impartiality.

    It’s when recent ex-SCS, as the article points out, openly criticise both the concept and delivery of Brexit that trust in the Civil Service gets eroded.

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