Published:

By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter

The head of the civil service wants Spads to report to mandarins as well as Ministers…

Screen shot 2012-06-09 at 07.01.34In his subversive account of the fall of the Conservative Party during the 1990s, "Guilty Men", Hwyel Williams draws a verbal cartoon of the special advisers (Spads) of the period, comparing them to dogs which look like their masters.  In doing so, he makes a serious point which is as true now as it was then: namely, that since Spads are by definition political appointees, and no Secretary of State can be quite the same as another, they can only be pasteurised and homogenised up to a point. Some will do serious policy work (among these he names David Ruffley, who worked at the time for Ken Clarke). Others will deal with the media.  Many will be somewhere in between.  The only task they will all have in common is to guard their Secretary of State's back.

The civil service has never been comfortable with Spads.  Some mandarins welcome them, because their presence can minimise disagreements about what is and isn't political work and, therefore, rows about what civil servants should and shouldn't be asked to do by Ministers.  But most have always been suspicious of Spads, for the bottom-line reason that they don't and can't control them.  This is exactly what Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, apparently wants to change.  To cut a long story short, the Times (£) has reported that he has seized on the errors of Adam Smith, Jeremy Hunt's former, over the BSkyB bid to push for Spads to report to mandarins rather than Ministers.  And hey presto, the problem of those pesky political appointees answering to Sir Humphrey rather than Jim Hacker would thus be solved.

…Which would further boost the scope of the civil service…

The Public Administration Select Committee is also conducting an enquiry.  There is sense in some standardisation, especially in relation to appointments: that of Christopher Myers as one of William Hague's Spads emphasises the point.  And there is a case for these to be approved by the committee itself. (Select Committees should certainly be able to veto candidates for major appointments, as the case of Sir Les Ebden indicated.)  But whenever the mandarins deploy their impenetrable but silky jargon, Ministers should reach for their revolvers.  The Times report was brimful with it: "management structure…performance appraisals…a more rigorous process".  This mellifluous balls is code for a civil service power grab – or at least for Spads to answer to two masters rather than one.

But just as no man can serve two masters, so no Spad can be perfomance-appraised by Sir Humphrey, since the man he must please is Mr Hacker, with whom he came in and with whom he will leave.  Or at least, no Spad can get a good write-up from Sir Humphrey if he crosses him – as, sometimes, he must.  I am not quite convinced by the Douglas Carswell view that "Yes, Minister" is really a civil service training video (though I have seen mandarins seek to run a semi-permanent counter-terror policy).  None the less, Ministers must sometimes force a policy through a reluctant department.  The most important case in modern times was the radical shift in criminal justice policy driven through the Home Office by Michael Howard – one so decisive that Labour Home Secretaries were unable to break openly with it over thirteen years.

…In a Government already vulnerable over political direction

Mr (now Lord) Howard was assisted in this work by a young Spad called David Cameron.  Would Mr Cameron have been able to give the help required if he had been required to report to the department's Jeremy Heywood of the day?  If a resistant Permanent Secretary had dug in for a bureaucratic trench war – questioning every memo, contact, meeting and phone call (and in these times every e-mail and text)?  Had a say in every speech and op-ed piece?  Asked Mr Cameron to account for every word said in private meetings with Mr Howard?  The drive for reform would have ground to a halt.  However, the issues raised by Sir Jeremy's move are not merely academic or historical.  After all, he has been labelled "the man who really runs the country" – on the cover of the Spectator, no less.

To Quentin Letts – the author of the piece – "the worry for Conservatives, and the rest of us, is that this shrewd murmurer, this eminence grease, has acquired unprecedented power over not only the Prime Minister but also Nick Clegg, Cabinet, the coalition and much of the rest of the state apparat".  Evidently, the article wasn't conjured out of thin air.  Mr Letts quoted a Cabinet Minister as saying: "We cannot have a referendum on who runs Britain because the answer will be the same whether we leave the EU or not: Jeremy Heywood."  But regardless of whether Sir Jeremy is pursuing a lebenstraum policy or not, nature abhors a vacuum – and there is more than a bit of one in Downing Street.  David Cameron has never quite decided whether he wants a George Osborne-type minimalist Government or a Steve Hilton-style maximalist one.

The timing isn't great for the Prime Minister, but he must tell Sir Jeremy to back off

Mr Hilton, of course, is gone.  Frustration with the civil service, reasonably or unreasonably, had much to do with it.  So are James O’Shaughnessy, Tim Chatwin, Peter Campbell and – for particular reasons – Andy Coulson.  So, most recently, is Sean Worth.  This is a startling attrition rate of senior personnel for a government that has not yet reached its planned halfway point.  And this account only considers the Tory part of the Government: that this is a Coalition in which Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats must have a major say – blurring the clarity of Government strategy still further in the process – only makes the gap which the civil service can fill even bigger.  Even the Downing Street Policy Unit, the engine that should drive future government policy-making, is now staffed by civil servants.

Sir Jeremy is pushing for yet more control at a time when Mr Cameron's own is under pressure.  The Prime Minister is facing an institutional double whammy (not to mention the Eurozone crisis) .  First, the Leveson enquiry, on which the Cabinet Secretary was reportedly keen, continues, and the Prime Minister will give evidence to it next week.  Second, news comes today that there is to be a police inquiry into the Cruddas affair.  But Sir Jeremy has the Government's Spad problem precisely the wrong way round. There isn't too little civil service or Downing Street control.  There is too much – certainly in the latter case.  (Andy Coulson wanted a media Spad in each department, precisely to tighten his grip.)  And there aren't too many Spads.  There are too few, as Tim Montgomerie has said right from the start.

Permanent Secretaries should use their present powers properly rather than be chasing after new ones: after all, the Culture Department's could have vetoed Mr Smith's dealings with the Murdoch Empire.  The ex-Spads who now lead the Government have a political and pastoral duty to the present ones who are trying to make it work.  The Prime Minister evidently values Sir Jeremy highly, and doubtless needs his assistance with Leveson.  So it may not be the best of times for him to tell the Cabinet Secretary to back off, but do so he must.

Comments are closed.