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How government scandals are creating a crisis for civil servants

Prime Minister Boris Johnson arriving in the Cabinet Room, Downing Street - Credit: PA

A serving government official writes anonymously about how the administration’s mounting scandals, and its response to them, is creating a crisis for Whitehall.

The civil service is in deep, deep trouble. Not because the knives are now out for the tiny numbers of senior civil servants who are discovered taking second jobs. Not because prime ministerial bunny-boiler Dominic Cummings is now threatening to dish the dirt. Not even because the government is accumulating scandals faster than Boris’ laundry basket.

No, the trouble is that we have now reached an important tipping-point where the normalisation of the reckless dishonesty that this Brexit government perfected during the Leave campaign threatens to completely destabilise the civil service.

That point was reached at the end of April when the PM – after an unprecedented clusterbourach of investigations and widespread claims from across the Commons that he’d serially and seriously misled parliament – decided to ignore the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendations by retaining his veto over ministerial investigations.  

This led the former head of the civil service Bob Kerslake and the former government legal chief Jonathan Jones, neither of whom are bed-wetting snowflakes, to condemn the move on the basis that it demolished the force of the ministerial code, with Jones pointing out that its enforcement now depends “purely on prime ministerial whim”.

After so many sleaze investigations – Mustique, Arcuri, Johnson’s mobile phone, Dyson texts, PPE contracts for mates, gold wallpaper, Patel bullying, Greensill – this is the one thing Johnson could have done to restore a bit of trust with the public and with Whitehall.  

That he didn’t means that the last remaining safeguard against corruption – apart from the Met and an Electoral Commission that we now know the Conservative Party wants to abolish – is the civil service. Oh, and don’t count on the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, because even if she issues a recommendation that Johnson be suspended from the Commons, the Tories are certainly brazen enough to use their majority to override it, all the more so after their spectacular result in Hartlepool.

It’s a bloody mess. The locking in of prime ministerial impunity would be bad at any time, with any prime minister. But at this time? With this prime minister?  

The acceleration of this collapse in governance and probity is particularly horrifying for civil servants, but you should be worried too. This isn’t about how the pandemic has been handled. It’s not about Brexit either, although recent shenanigans in Northern Ireland and Jersey have amply demonstrated that, far from it being ‘done’, Brexit has only just begun.

It’s bigger than that. Take any of the fearsome strategic challenges that face us: climate change, the resourcing of our health service and social care; the tackling of rising poverty. As video posted online by Peter Stefanovic and which subsequently went viral showed, these are just a few of the critical issues that the prime minister has recently lied about from the dispatch box.  

Yet all of these will be the locus of future battles with the civil service, precisely because none of them can be solved without a clear-eyed commitment to truth, impartiality, and all the other endangered Nolan principles of public life.

Come on, mate, you might say. It can’t be that bad! Don’t we have a hotshot new head of the civil service, a virile new cabinet secretary who can make sure the government stays on the straight and narrow? Sadly, not in this Case, as it looks like Boris is stitching him up like a Manx kipper. 

Stay with me. The cabinet secretary has a special role in the UK’s peculiar constitutional set-up. As well as being the head of the nation’s 400,000-plus cohort of civil servants, he (and it’s always a he; no woman has ever been appointed) is responsible for administering the ministerial code which governs the conduct of ministers.

That role – following the defenestration of Sir Mark Sedwill in September 2020 at the hands of you-know-who – is currently occupied by Simon Case, who at 41 was the youngest civil servant ever to be appointed to that role.

Case very recently hit the headlines after astonishing members of the House of Commons’ public administration and constitutional affairs committee. Asked about whether the prime minister had used a private donation to pay for the refurbishments of the flat above Number 11 Downing Street, his evasive manoeuvres in front of that committee were so callow and unconvincing that they managed to unify both Labour and Tory MPs in condemnation. Swiftly followed by a series of unflattering comparisons with Yes, Prime Minister and Line of Duty. Robert Peston called his performance “jaw-droppingly empty”. 

Most civil servants are old enough to remember when Cabinet Secretaries were respected if not feared by government ministers. Not any more.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a tough job. But for Whitehall veterans who tuned in to BBC Parliament to watch him squirm in front of grumpy parliamentarians, it was a bit like watching Daniel Radcliffe take on his first serious post-Hogwarts role. And yes, The Woman in Black is a decent enough film, but watching an out-of-his-depth ingenue being forced into dealing with vengeful ghosts proved to be even more entertaining.

The problem is that his performance suggested that in a situation where Johnson has ascribed to himself the role of sole arbiter of his and ministers’ behaviour, Case is simply not strong nor savvy enough to avoid being sucked into precisely the same vacuum of integrity that former attorney general Dominic Grieve accused the prime minister of embodying.  

The consequences for the civil service of its chief failing the loyalty test set for him by the PM will be dire. Why? Because rules matter. Civil servants were chilled to their marrow when they heard government ministers on their media rounds casually dismiss the recent crop of scandals as things the public “don’t want to hear about” or that Johnson’s innate recklessness has been “priced in”.  

Don’t tell us the nation isn’t interested in corruption! Mother of God, didn’t you see the viewing figures for Line of Duty? But even if its true that a newly-vaccinated public isn’t interested in how corruption affects government business today, they certainly will tomorrow when the services they count on are disrupted by Brexit, are privatised or are simply cut to the bone. All because basic processes of accountability appear to have been – let’s face it – sabotaged for private gain.  

Take it from a civil service insider. As long as the prime minister pretends not to understand the danger presented by the deterioration of standards he is bringing about, the civil service, as Lionel Barber wrote in these pages recently, will soon be overwhelmed by the short-termism which is the hallmark of the government.

And, unlike Line of Duty, the public’s suspension of disbelief won’t last another series.

The author is a career UK civil servant and was part of Operation Yellowhammer, the plan for a no-deal Brexit. He tweets at @TheCivilSavant

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