See that unassuming square of text at the bottom of page two of today’s Financial Times? No, not the one about Lord Freud. The one to the left of it, with the headline “PM wins battle to give final nod for top civil service posts”. It may not sound particularly thrilling, not like a record fall in unemployment or a puffed-up row about what someone said at a fringe meeting. But it’s still one of the most significant political stories of the day.
This is the happy conclusion of an unhappy struggle between ministers and senior officials. The latter have generally opposed giving the former more sway in the appointments process. They liked the existing set-up by which, when a new permanent secretary was required, the Civil Service Commission presented a single candidate to the Prime Minister, who could then accept or reject their choice. Anything else, they said, would mean politicisation of the Civil Service.
But now that resistance has been overcome – at least in part. From now on, the Civil Service Commission will present a final list of candidates to the Prime Minister, who will then be able to do the prime-ministerial thing and choose for himself. Certain “safeguards” will have to be upheld, however. The Civil Service Commission will still, for instance, decide who is suitable for that final list. If they think that only one person is up to the job, then the list will be only one name long.
I know that doesn’t make this measure sound like much. But, in a way, it’s more important for what it says than for which candidates end up in which particular jobs. And what does it say? That the Prime Minister is in charge. That senior civil servants owe him their jobs. And that they’d better be bloody good at them in return. The old presumptions of the Civil Service will not do.
This was a major theme in the Cabinet Office’s recent “progress report”, in which Francis Maude lamented that “it is apparent that insufficient change has been made to the culture of the Civil Service”. And it was there, too, in the appointment of John Manzoni as Whitehall’s chief executive. As I wrote last week, Manzoni is a sort of new model civil servant: reform-inclined and business-brained.
And one of the best features of these changes is that they are supported right across the political spectrum. The IPPR has made the case for the Prime Minister selecting permanent secretaries in this new way. And Labour’s Michael Dugher backed the idea in a speech last month. In fact, this might be why the Civil Service agreed to it in the end. They knew they’d have to eventually, whoever wins in 2015.