Ugly attacks on the civil service mount—but Whitehall could yet could leave this episode with its authority enhancedby Sue Cameron / July 14, 2019 / Leave a comment
Britain’s new prime minister will be clapped into No 10 by the staff only hours after they have clapped out Theresa May. The ritual can be emotional. As a centre of government, 10 Downing Street is small and everyone knows everyone else from the highest to the lowest. There is a family atmosphere, for it is a home as well as a political nerve centre, with the PM living in a flat upstairs and Larry the cat curled up in the window of the front hall. There is fellow feeling for a premier who leaves in difficult circumstances—sometimes tears.
In a professional sense, many of the 200 or so staff in No 10—the messengers, the police, the secretaries—will be largely unaffected by the arrival of a new PM. Not so the cadre of top officials, led by Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, who will greet the new prime minister in the chequered hall and lead him to the cabinet room. Their task is to choreograph all aspects of the changeover. Ever since 19th-century reforms replaced patronage with merit in Whitehall, the proud boast of these mandarins has been that they, too, can work seamlessly through every transition, because politicians of all stripes can trust them.
Yet as with so many of our constitutional arrangements, the question is whether Brexit will test convention to breaking point. With politicians bitterly divided and the government limping along with the tiniest majority, this is set to be the most difficult transition the civil service has ever faced in peacetime.
No matter how radical the policy changes under a new PM, the tradition has been that there are not radical changes in the personnel of the permanent civil service. No prime minister, for example, has ever sacked a cabinet secretary since the role was created for Maurice Hankey a century ago. But since the Brexit vote, politicians have been tugging away at the convention. Figures on both the right and the left have attacked named civil servants. Consider Olly Robbins, May’s chief Brexit adviser who became the whipping boy of hardline Brexiteers for his role in crafting her deeply unpopular withdrawal deal. That episode does not fill senior civi servants with confidence. Even more significantly, some Boris Johnson supporters have been manoeuvring to have…