Powell in 2007. Photo: Cathal McNaughton/PA Archive/PA Images

Why the government’s war on the civil service is destined to fail

I know from experience that you have to work with, not against, the civil service. Cummings’s Whitehall revolution will end in disaster
July 7, 2020

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a new prime minister in possession of a good majority must be in want of a conflict with the civil service. Harold Wilson was frustrated by the domination of Oxbridge amateurs in the 1960s, Tony Blair spoke of the scars on his back in 1999 and David Cameron called the civil service “the enemies of enterprise” in 2011. And now the Johnson-Cummings premiership has threatened the civil service with a “hard rain.”

A newly-elected PM is almost bound to view the permanent civil service as standing in their way and the civil service does indeed require reform. In our first few days in No 10 in 1997, a Home Office team came over to give a PowerPoint presentation in the Cabinet Room with multicoloured graphs showing the crime rate would rise inexorably. Tony asked why, and the officials replied because the growing economy put more temptations in the way of criminals. I asked what would happen if there was a recession. Without missing a beat, the officials replied that crime would rise because people would be more deprived and more would have to resort to crime to survive.

Such fatalism is the first big problem with the civil service—it has the wrong mindset. Officials give ministers 100 reasons why their wizard new idea cannot be implemented, when what they want is a can-do attitude. The second big problem is with the skill set. It is still the case that kudos and rewards come from wrangling with legislation and high policy, not implementing policies on the ground. Civil servants are not good, as their French equivalents are, at actually delivering grand projets, from the test-and-trace app to HS2.

One way to tackle this is to try to work round the civil service, and in May 1997 we made the classic mistake of transferring a successful election campaign team directly into No 10 to run a parallel operation to the government. It soon came a cropper. If we had been using the civil service properly, we wouldn’t have allowed ourselves to be bounced into banning beef on the bone in the context of the BSE panic, a decision it took years to reverse.

Cummings will soon learn the same lesson. He has gone much further, not only bringing the Vote Leave team into No 10, but also trying to run the whole government through a parallel network of special advisers in every department, all reporting to him. It has—already—failed spectacularly over coronavirus, and it will soon fail on reviving the economy too. The machinery of government is too complex to be run by a maverick and a band of mates with him as the hub, and everyone else a spoke. And the challenges are a lot deeper than coming up with three-word slogans to put on the prime minister’s podium, however clever they may be.

You have to adapt to the civil service, just as they have to adapt to you. After a year in No 10, Tony complained plaintively to me that the civil service felt like a shiny Rolls-Royce parked outside the door of Downing Street which he was not allowed to drive. We had to change.

Michael Gove’s recent Ditchley Lecture elegantly listed the problems with the civil service with a bit of Gramsci and FDR thrown in for good measure. What struck me was how familiar his list felt: the lack of scientists and mathematicians in the civil service; the failure of officials to become experts, instead moving around every few years; the need to move departments out of London to be nearer the people; the need to teach officials new skills and so on. I included all of them in a book I wrote in 2011 and, indeed, they were exactly the issues that Wilson asked John Fulton to grapple with in his report on the civil service in 1966. What Gove did not do was suggest a single new method of solving these very old problems.

The government has now revealed how they intend to go about it—by declaring war on the civil service, sacking the cabinet secretary and centralising power in No 10. I want reform but I am certain this approach is destined to fail.

Coming soon after the departures of the permanent secretaries of both the home and foreign offices, the ousting of Mark Sedwill as Cabinet Secretary and National Security Adviser—and particularly replacing him in the latter role by chief Brexit negotiator David Frost—is the first step towards the American system of public service. Frost has no obvious qualifications to fill the job, never having worked on politico-military or security matters, other than the fact that he is a Brexiteer.

[su_pullquote]"What worries me most about the Johnson-Cummings approach is not that it will fail, but that it is part of a wider threat to our very constitutional order"[/su_pullquote]

This reflects what Gove said in his speech about wanting officials “closer to the 52 per cent who voted to Leave," and with “more understanding of why”—or how I heard it: “people like us.”

There is clearly a place for political appointments, and the US system has its advantages. But if you go the whole hog of filling civil service jobs with fellow travellers, you throw out the advantages of an independent civil service that Britain has enjoyed since the 19th-century Northcote-Trevelyan reforms, and import a myriad of American problems—many of the 2,000 or so presidential appointments are not even filled throughout the term of a president, many of the candidates are unqualified and every issue is hyper-politicised right down to the guest list at State Department dinners.

Furthermore, by relying only on people who share your views, you compound the very problem of “Groupthink” referred to in Gove’s speech. If everyone in senior positions thinks the same way, who is going to challenge and probe policies to avert serious mistakes?

No 10 brief that they will create a prime minister’s department. This is another mistake. Between 1997 and 2007 we considered establishing a Department of the Prime Minister a number of times. It is tempting. After all, the PM has only a tiny number of civil servants and hardly any budget. It is the cabinet ministers who have the civil servants and budgets, and the PM has to cajole them into taking the steps she or he wants.

I was persuaded out of the idea when a young official from Gehrard Schröder’s Kanzleramt in Germany, who had been attached to us for a couple of months, came to see me and said whatever we did we should not emulate the German system by establishing a large bureaucracy at the centre. The Kanzleramt is huge and divided into functional departments replicating every department in the German government. As a result it is slow and over bureaucratic, unlike the nimble No 10 which relies on direct contact with the prime minister and responds to their wishes instantly.

Centralising the system too far is dangerous. As the response to Covid-19 has shown, if all decisions have to be taken by one person in Downing Street, it slows everything down and does not allow the system to respond locally to different circumstances, as we are now seeing in the coronavirus context with Leicester.

Declaring war on the civil service will have one of two disastrous effects. It will either push officials into passive resistance: preventing reform by refusing to take any risks. Or, even worse, they will stop telling truth unto power, out of fear for their jobs. They will simply go along with whatever No 10 proposes, regardless of the consequences. Following Tony’s speech on the “scars on his back” we had to back-pedal fast: we belatedly realised that you need the civil servants to implement the changes you want. That means persuading them rather than threatening them.

But what worries me most about the Johnson-Cummings approach is not that it will fail, but that it is potentially the first part of a wider threat to our very constitutional order.

We have seen, in Hungary and Poland, what happens when populist right-wing governments feel frustrated at their inability to bring about change. First they gut the public services to remove any opposition, then they move on to the public broadcaster and finally the judiciary. Fighting back from that kind of subversion can take a very long time.

Our system is even more vulnerable than theirs. We have no written constitution; our checks and balances depend on unwritten rules and conventions. The first of these checks is the civil service. If a government is prepared to ride roughshod over those checks, then the old caricature of the “elective dictatorship” will be untrammelled.

In our time in government we were accused of subverting the system by practising sofa government, rather than using the formal machinery of the cabinet. That controversy, though, was really about form, not substance. This time is different. It is the substance that is threatened. The only thing standing in the way of us suffering the fate of Hungary and Poland, or how the US system under Trump has been corrupted, are Conservative MPs, because only they can unseat Johnson in the next four years.

I don’t know for sure that Johnson and Cummings intend to sweep away every independent institution in the country that stands in their way. But I don’t want to stay silent and find out too late.


Jonathan Powell was Downing Street chief of staff from 1997 to 2007