In Whitehall one person above all has a ringside seat watching the shambles at the heart of governmentby Sue Cameron / February 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
The Official History of the Cabinet Secretaries by Ian Beesley (Routledge, £90)
Buy this book on Amazon
The Cabinet Office, 1916-2016: The Birth of Modern Government by Anthony Seldon and Jonathan Meakin (Biteback, £25)
Buy this book on Amazon
When Ivan Rogers abruptly resigned in January as Britain’s ambassador to the European Union, the fallout reverberated throughout Whitehall and Westminster. His outspoken farewell letter to his staff urging them to continue challenging “ill-founded argument and muddled thinking,” and never to be afraid of speaking truth to power caused outrage among right-wing politicians. They claimed it showed that Rogers had not been a politically neutral civil servant, adding that he had taken sides in the Brexit debate by suggesting that it could take the UK 10 years to leave the EU. There were demands that his successor should be someone who would take a hard Brexit line—possibly a politician.
Much fury ensued, with muttering about unprecedented chaos, but in reality the strains that showed were not new. The row raised the age-old dilemma about whether it is possible for mandarins to remain impartial in giving policy advice when they disagree with a government’s political aims. Civil servants always say it is, while their ministerial masters sometimes doubt it. Mutual suspicion on this point has often led to strained relations, adding to the chaos and uncertainty that routinely lurks inside No 10.
One hundred years have passed since Maurice Hankey wrote in despair about “the scrambles of ministers to get their pet subjects discussed at Cabinet meetings… the endless rambling discussions with no one to give a decision,” and “the humiliating and dangerous doubts of what the decision was, or whether there had been a decision at all.” Hankey, a man with a passion for order and for power, became the first cabinet secretary in 1916, and held the post for 22 years. More influential than most ministers, it was Hankey who began to impose discipline on the political pandemonium during the First World War—but it was always an uphill fight.
Today the cabinet secretary is the most powerful official in Whitehall. On the face of it, the job has not changed much since Hankey’s time. He must prepare…