A spectre is haunting Whitehall – the spectre of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Unlike most ghosts, the Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency is hard to miss as he stalks the corridors of government departments, aiming to give civil servants the fright of their life. He doesn’t need any chains to rattle or day-glo paint to strike fear into the hearts of the average bureaucrat, like SW1’s take on a Scooby Doo baddy. No, the all Rees-Mogg needs is a little note saying he hopes to see any official working from home back in the office soon to give them the heebie-jeebies
And yet now Somerset’s most notable export (outside of middling cider and half-decent spinners) has added a new tool to his armoury in his fight to make our Rolls-Royce Civil Service a bit less Austin Allegro. The Government has a new pledge to cut 91,000 officials, bringing staff levels back to the heady pre-Brexit and Covid days of 2016. The measure has been sold as tackling the cost-of-living crisis; what ever back-of-a-fag-packet calculations that have been done suggest £3.5 billion could be saved and ploughed into funding tax cuts.
Regular readers of my economic missives will know that I am no fan of an unfunded tax cut. Unlike Ronald Reagan, I do not think the deficit is big enough to look after itself – especially as borrowing costs soar and growth stagnates. As such, I must congratulate the Government on waking up to the need to balance intake with outgoings, especially as the tax burden hits a 71-year high. I am also no fan of sclerotic civil servants and have greatly enjoyed Rees-Mogg’s ongoing efforts to get officials off their Pelotons and back to their desks.
But that won’t stop me criticising this new scheme. Leave aside what it says about the idea-generating capacity of our current Cabinet that this was the best they came up with when they were all shipped to Stoke solely to produce vote-winning ideas. Instead, we should go after the sheer impracticality of a proposal that appears both unworkable and unable to deliver the tax cuts promised. Most importantly, we should worry about a government that gestures towards fiscal prudence, with no actual desire or plan to deliver it.
The Civil Service has grown by a fifth in the last six years. Partly, this was a product of the pandemic, with a squadron of administrators required to man projects such as the NHS test-and-trace system. But it is also a consequence of Brexit. New departments, such as the Department for International Trade and the (now defunct) Department for Exiting the European Union, were required alongside a huge scaling up of some existing departments to cover duties repatriated from Brussels. The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs has reportedly trebled in size.
Consequently, some of the new roles Rees-Mogg might want to cut simply can’t be removed if he wants to honour his title as Minister for Brexit Opportunities. Moreover, as indolent, intransigent, and impossible as many aspects of Whitehall may be, and as obvious as the failings of the working-from-home culture are, the Civil Service is already under a huge amount of pressure. Incompetence at the DVLA rubs shoulders with a Border Force burdened with new duties post-Brexit, and a criminal justice system creaking under a two-year-long pandemic backlog.
Of course, if this proposal came as part of an ongoing and genuine commitment to fundamentally reforming the Civil Service, making it more responsive and data-driven, then these cuts could be understood as the necessary losses required in digitising and updating Whitehall. But the Prime Minister fell out with the man who has thought and written more on this subject than anyone else, and any reform agenda has lost all impetus ever since Dominic Cummings left Number 10. Instead, this effort appears to be a kneejerk threat from a Minister and Government fed up with officials.
That is made especially apparent by the ‘cost-of-living’ veneer with which this cull of the Civil Service has been coated. It is not clear whether the £3.5 billion figure accounts for the Government apparently hoping to make most of these cuts via voluntary redundancies. Either way, £3.5 billion is a laughably small amount in the overall context of Government spending, or in funding a tax cut that will genuinely help those currently struggling. The new National Insurance rise is set to cost tax-payers at least £6 billion alone.
So this policy doesn’t even reverse the biggest hit that this government itself has made to the pockets of the average voter. Although the Chancellor has already aimed to effectively cancel out the rise for a majority of those affected, that the Government is already reverse-ferreting on a policy it introduced only a few short months ago highlights how it both failed to prepare for the stagflation hurtling towards it, and how the Johnson Ministry is living day-by-day, headline-by-headline, focus group-by-focus group. That is not a recipe for good government – or a coherent economic strategy.
Rees-Mogg was therefore right to say that cutting 91,000 civil servants does not represent a return to Osborne-esque austerity. Not only is this a drop in the ocean compared to the real cuts required to impact inflation or fund tax cuts, but it also does not come part of any sort of long-term economic plan. That phrase may have been mocked, and Osborne may have missed many of his self-imposed targets. But at least the Cameron government had an aim – to reduce the deficit through spending cuts. Since then, both May and Johnson have hiked spending whilst hoping they won’t have to pay for it.
Whilst I am naturally sympathetic to commentators’ calls to sack every civil servant who insists on still working-from-home, and as much as I believe Whitehall is bloated and inefficient, this headline-friendly war on officialdom is not the right approach. We are a 21st century country governed by a Victorian system that needs desperate reform, and we face a perilous economic climate that will demand some tough choices. This proposal meets neither of those challenges – and it is almost embarrassing that ministers would pretend that it does.