With all that’s been happening this week, from policy flip-flops to floppy moustaches, you may not have noticed that war has broken out. So I’ll give you a rapid-fire briefing. The arena is Whitehall. The aggressors are senior civil servants. And the targets are certain Coalition ministers.
I know what you’re probably thinking: “Yawn! Wake me up when there isn’t war along Whitehall.” But I’ve always thought that the idea of constant, vicious fighting between ministers and bureaucrats is overplayed, for reasons that I described in a post earlier this year. It’s rarely that bad… but this, this week, this is pretty bad.
So, what’s happened? It started on Monday with a story in The Independent about a chat between Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, and David Cameron. Apparently, Heywood was acting to “save the career” of the DWP’s permanent secretary, Robert Devereux, who – it is claimed – has been the victim of a “concerted political briefing campaign” over the start-up failures of the Universal Credit. The article contained a richly ironic line about how Heywood believes that “such conversations needed to take place in private and not through the newspapers”. He thinks, as well, that “responsibility also lay with Iain Duncan Smith”.
That may not sound too terrible: just Heywood defending one of his own, mostly. But then the situation was escalated by an item in Sue Cameron’s latest column for the Daily Telegraph. It began: “Is Sir Humphrey about to claim a scalp or two?” And continued with a passage that deserves the full italic treatment:
“Apparently our top civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, has already given the PM brutally frank advice about the role of Mr Maude and Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, in briefing against Robert Devereux, the most senior official overseeing Universal Credit. Sir Jeremy believes Mad Frankie and IDS are the problem, rather than Mr Devereux. No doubt both ministers will admire Sir Jeremy’s candour. Roll on the reshuffle!”
Which makes Heywood’s conversation with the Prime Minister sound altogether more bloodthirsty. It’s not just IDS; Francis Maude meets with his disapproval too. Did he push for them to be sacked? Does he want them to be sacked? Sue Cameron’s article leaves it ambiguous, but that would be awfully dodgy ground for an unelected Cabinet Secretary to be treading upon.
And before you think it’s all Heywood, a former Cabinet Secretary has also joined the fray. Today, Lord Butler is being interviewed on the BBC’s Week in Westminster – and, judging by the quotes that have been released in advance, he also harbours grievances about “sniping” against senior civil servants. Perhaps his most biting line is: “I’m sorry to say, I really think that Mr Maude and some of his colleagues don’t understand leadership.”
I should say, at this point, that I have absolutely no enthusiasm for the backbiting and finger-pointing that goes on in Westminster. Lord Butler is on to something when he says that “the relationship between ministers and the civil service works best when they work together in a mutually supportive relationship”.
But there’s still something perturbing about these latest complaints, particularly the ones involving Heywood. After all, it’s easy to see how they could run counter to the Coalition’s wider – and much needed – efforts to reform the civil service. If criticism of senior civil servants is regarded as beyond the pale, then what chance that the same civil servants will be made more accountable? If the Cabinet Secretary can go to such lengths to “save the career” of a colleague, what does it mean for ministers having greater control over who they hire and fire? If Jeremy Heywood wants ministers sacked, who’s really in charge?
For his part, Francis Maude gave a speech to a group of civil servants yesterday – the Top 200 – which, it seems, dealt with some of the criticisms that are flying around. Among its themes, I’m told, was one he has sounded before: that the civil service is crammed full of brilliant people, but – often to their own chagrin – it doesn’t always allow them to capitalise on, or develop, that brilliance. He added that folk don’t want to be patronised by being told that everything is fine when it’s not.
In that spirit, let’s just say that things aren’t all fine. A couple of months ago, it was backbenchers who were haranguing the Government over civil service reform. Now it’s back to the old order. The bureaucrats, at least some of them, are angry with their ministers.