Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
Let’s face it: the relationship between the Conservative Party and the Civil Service is going from bad to worse.
Most obviously, we’ve seen the proliferation of bullying allegations against ministers. I’m in no position to judge the rights and wrongs of each case, but if raising one’s voice to a civil servant is now an act of unconscionable brutality, we ought to remember that shouting at ministers will continue every time their departments fail.
Another bone of contention is the absence of civil servants from their desks; in the run-up to the Sudan crisis it was reported that more than half on Foreign Office staff were working from home, prompting complaints from Conservative MPs.
And then there’s Partygate, in which the civil service was hardly blameless. It also doesn’t help that Sue Gray, the senior civil servant who led the inquiry, is now the subject of scrutiny herself, following the revelation that she’s set to become the Labour leader’s chief of staff.
So, yes, there are reasons for Tory frustrations and suspicions. And yet if there’s something seriously wrong with the government machine, the buck stops with those in charge of it.
Here we are, on our fifth consecutive prime minister… and Whitehall looks pretty much the same as it did the day that Gordon Brown left office. The story of the last thirteen years is one of empty gestures, missed opportunities, and abandoned reforms.
In 2010, David Cameron came to power promising to cut the number of special advisors (spads). It was good for a few cheap shots, but, in the longer-term, an act of self-sabotage. The interests of elected governments (temporary) and the Civil Service (permanent) are not aligned and never can be; to keep officials on tap, not on top, ministers need staff they can appoint and rely upon.
Refusing them this support is not only cruel but, as Francis Maude points out, unusual too. In other English-speaking democracies, it is normal for ministers to appoint key members of staff.
If nothing else, having a fully-powered political team in each department would alleviate the key constraint on day-to-day decision-making – the number of waking hours available to each minister.
It’s not just what happens within departments that needs to change, but also what happens between them. Joined-up government is a wonderful thing, but when it’s the Civil Service doing the joining-up, the political benefits are diluted. It would be much better if ministers routinely settled cross-departmental business directly.
Previously, I’ve written about the pre-2010 plans to implement the New Zealand model of government, in which ministers from different departments are co-located in the same building. Unfortunately, the plans were abandoned, the excuse being that coalition government was complicated enough already.
It could be argued that unexpected developments, from the Coalition to Brexit to Covid, are the dominant theme of the last thirteen years. Like householders beset by fire, flood, and other emergencies, successive prime mnisters just haven’t had time to rearrange the furniture.
Except that this excuse doesn’t wash. A competent government must be capable of crisis management and the simultaneous pursuit of reform. If the 1940-45 government was able to lay the foundations of the welfare state while simultaneously defeating Hitler, then the Cameron Government could have reshaped Whitehall while mollifying Nick Clegg.
To be fair, there was some reform during this period. In the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude created the Government Digital Service (GDS), which successfully grappled with the infamous Whitehall tradition of IT cock-ups. He also promoted the Extended Ministerial Office concept, which made a start in giving ministers the political staff that they need.
At Education, meanwhile, Michael Gove and Dominics Cummings wrestled with the Blob, overcoming institutional resistance to higher standards and free schools.
Progress was also made on decentralising power away from Whitehall. This wasn’t solely due to the appointment of a competent minister who actually believed in localism (Greg Clark), but also the creation of the Cities Policy Unit, which worked across departmental boundaries and recruited key staff from outside the Civil Service.
But just look what happened to these examples of innovation. The extended ministerial offices were scrapped; the Cities Policy Unit and Government Digital Service were re-absorbed into the civil service business-as-usual.
Gove was rewarded for his reforming zeal with a demotion, and Cummings left government altogether. The latter made a dramatic comeback in 2019, but despite his record as a change-maker he was soon out again.
The Conservative Party since 2010 has a truly terrible record of retaining its reformers — especially those capable of understanding and reshaping the structures of government. Of the names I’ve mentioned – and I could add a few more – only one (Gove) is still in government.
Why should this be? Is Whitehall’s auto-immune system simply too strong? Is the virus of change always overwhelmed by establishment antibodies?
Not really. Whilst the Civil Service sometimes impedes the political will, it’s the all-too-resistible force, and not the supposedly immovable object, that’s the deciding factor here.
It was petty power struggles amongst Boris Johnson’s inner circle, not the Civil Service, that forced Cummings out; likewise it is not the permanent secretaries who have endlessly reshuffled ministers, reducing their ability to get to grips with each department.
Five years ago, when Dominic Raab became the minister of state for housing, I wrote an open letter to him, care of ConservativeHome. I wished him all the best for his new role: “the most important job of your political career so far.”
I needn’t have bothered – Raab only held the position for six months. It tells you something that since moving on (to become Brexit Secretary) he’s had eight — yes, eight — successors.
It’s no surprise that not one of these has come close to solving the housing crisis. How could they? They barely had time to unpack their pot plants before being shuffled away again.
In any case, the housing policies that really matter are made in the Treasury. Perhaps that’s why the latest bright idea on this front is to resurrect the economically-illiterate Help to Buy scheme, which only succeeds in helping to make homes unaffordable.
And thus the housing crisis continues, with political consequences that will soon be felt in Blue Wall constituencies like Esher and Walton (current MP: Raab).
It’s not all bad news. These days, few sounds of bickering or drunken excess can be heard from Number 10. That’s a sign that the grown-ups are back in charge.
But we don’t just need a problem-solving culture in Downing Street, we need it across all of Whitehall – and in that respect progress is hard to detect.
Indeed, it could be argued we’re going backwards. For instance, earlier this year, the old Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was abolished to form two new departments: Energy Security and Net Zero and Business and Trade.
A bold reform of the government apparatus? Er, no. With minor variations, the new departments look a lot like DECC (the Department of Energy and Climate Chance) and DBIS (the Department of Business, Innovation and skills), which we inherited from Labour.
In other words, we’ve made a 13-year round trip to recreate the departmental structures of 2010.
It’s a horrible thought that without a bigger shift in the polls, Sir Keir Starmer is set to take charge of Whitehall by the end of next year. But it could be worse: for all the changes we’ve made, Labour might as well send back Gordon Brown.