In Boris Johnson’s interview with the Sunday Telegraph this morning, he yearns for a civil service that will “work faster” – and thinks that “sometimes it’s a question of confidence and belief”.
“Maybe there are ways in which we can all learn together to do things faster, to have a real spirit of ‘can do’. I’m not saying that people don’t have that, but there’s an opportunity to learn from the crisis and to work faster.”
Two main criticisms of the civil service are levelled by Number Ten. (The Prime Minister is careful to say: “Please don’t think that I in any way underestimate the brilliance of the UK civil service, they are absolutely fantastic.”)
The first is that it needs to “focus on results; decentralise its operations; use data more rigorously; understand mathematical reasoning; rotate staff less often; produce more experts and, startlingly, risk failure by innovating”.
The second is that parts of the service have a worldview that isn’t impartial; that this was so over Brexit, to which there was opposition; that this is so over human rights norms, which are believed to trump our national sovereignty.
Downing Street’s objection to these isn’t to human rights themselves, which are a way of describing justice, but about the way they’re sometimes interpreted by the courts – see the Court of Appeal’s Shamima Begum decision.
At any rate, a slew of top civil servants have recently left their posts: beside Mark Sedwill, Simon McDonald at the Foreign Office and Richard Heaton at Justice have gone. Philip Rutnam resigned from the Home Office.
A questionmark also hovers next to the name of Jonathan Slater at Education. But Number Ten is thinking about much more than the future of individual officials.
As this site reported recently, the Cabinet Office, which is believed, like Public Health England, to have performed poorly over the Coronavirus, is marked for reform.
Friends of Dominic Cummings have signalled big changes coming both to it and to Number Ten – “a smaller, more focused and more elite centre is needed”, he recently told a SpAd zoom meeting.
He also said that the Coronavirus has exposed fundamental problems in the Whitehall machine and that many officials now accept the need for radical change.
Downing Street would resist a label reading “Prime Minister’s Department” being stuck to the coming changes, but they will clearly involve more control from Number Ten.
ConservativeHome is told that one option is moving Johnson out of his current office in Number Ten, in which Prime Ministers have been accommodated during recent years.
His is the room to which Theresa May famously restored a desk after David Cameron had done without one during his “chillaxing” years.
Under this plan, Johnson would shuffle over to 70 Whitehall, where the bulk of the Cabinet Office is accommodated, and would settle there with his Policy Unit, which is headed by Munira Mirza.
Number Ten would resist the claim that “a more elite centre” equals “a much bigger centre” – or that centralisation itself works.
Cummings’ briefing to the Zoom meeting was that “it’s ludicrous to suggest the solution to Whitehall’s problems is a bigger centre and more centralisation – it’s already far too big and incoherent”.
One idea that has been doing the rounds is that the Government needs Michael Gove as the Prime Minister’s formal deputy in order to get a grip on the pullulating Downing Street operation.
There is no knowing what the Prime Minister would do in a reshuffle, since he keeps his cards not so much close to his chest as stuffed down his vest.
However, a view put to this site by several sources is that a more efficient Number Ten wouldn’t need a powerful number two politician to run it.
Gove would instead “be promoted elsewhere” – perhaps to the Home Office if Patel runs into trouble in the courts, where Rutnam is bringing his case against her.