The Blob strikes back

There are many dangers confronting the UK today. Suella Braverman is among them; the civil service is not

May 23, 2023
Image: art press / Alamy Stock Photo
Suella Braverman was a star turn at the National Conservatism conference. Image: art press / Alamy Stock Photo

Suella Braverman should not have been surprised by the response. If the home secretary did ask civil servants to fix a one-to-one speeding awareness course, so that she could deal with the problem of being a law-breaking government minister in private, then she was asking for trouble. Firstly, civil servants are not supposed to deal with their ministers’ non-governmental issues; secondly, Braverman has been party to a concerted government effort to alienate them.

“The Blob” is not a term of endearment. Yet civil servants have now become accustomed to being so labelled by those involved in this Tory administration. It was Dominic Cummings, the then Svengali of the Tory party, who appears to have popularised the insult but it has gained traction as the government has announced a succession of aims that are impossible to fulfil.

As education secretary, Michael Gove claimed he was fighting “The Blob” of schools bureaucracy to achieve the reforms he wanted. Jacob Rees-Mogg has been one of the loudest voices in blaming “The Blob” for the government’s failings, most recently at this month’s National Conservatism conference for the Tory far right.

“It is a victory for the ‘blob’ over a specific promise from the prime minister,” he had previously railed on his GB News show. “Deregulation that could have reduced prices, lowering inflation, has been abandoned because of idle civil servants and inert ministers.” On this occasion he was referring specifically to the government’s climbdown on the egregious Retained EU Law Bill, but he takes every opportunity to lambast civil servants, not least for their failure to return to the office five days a week. As someone who has a home just steps away from his parliamentary workplace, he may not fully understand the benefits of skipping a lengthy commute now and then.

Braverman was a star turn at the National Conservatism shindig. She has been wooing the far right of the party especially assiduously since the ousting of Boris Johnson. In March this year, an email to Conservative Party members, signed by her, shrieked: “We tried to stop the small boat crossings without changing our laws. But an activist blob of left-wing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour Party blocked us.” Apparently she had not seen it before Central Office pressed the “send” button, but who believes she would have stopped it?

Seeking scapegoats is a normal human trait and, for failing ministers, civil servants are an obvious target. They cannot engage in the public blame game and, should they challenge their bosses, then they now—a relatively recent and unwelcome development—risk being bade farewell.

Against that background, the opportunity for her staff to tell the home secretary that she had to swallow the ramifications of her speeding offence like any other citizen must have been uplifting. But there is a bigger fightback underway. Former civil servants are speaking up, most notably Lord Wilson of Dinton, who was cabinet secretary and head of the civil service from 1998 until 2002.

As the government U-turned on its EU Retained Law Bill, acknowledging the impossibility of doing away with most EU-derived law by the end of this year, scrapping the sunset clause that would have seen swathes of important law expire by default, and itemising just under 600 pieces of legislation that would be scrapped (and even then with caveats), Tory backbenchers such as Rees-Mogg were keen to blame intransigent civil servants. Lord Wilson, speaking in the Upper Chamber, dismissed their criticisms as “ill-judged and grossly unfair.”

But he then turned the tables, critiquing the process of Brexit in a totally damning way. “It is the most terrible experiment with government and an enormous learning experience for the government. It will not be done quickly, and what will slow it down is not the civil service but the huge volume of work involved in it,” he said. He pointed out that the process of joining the EU had taken many years and reasoned: “It will take us 10, 15 or 20 years to leave the European Union.”

The key fault he pinpointed was that the decision to leave the EU was taken “without a proper appraisal of what it entailed”. He warned that, even in its much-reduced form, the EU Retained Law Bill “will have unforeseen consequences and will go wrong”. He concluded that it was not the fault of the civil service “that this is such a terrible and deeply worrying mess.”

The fears of a former cabinet secretary should not be dismissed lightly. It may be that the civil service needs reform, as all organisations do when technology is evolving so rapidly, but its experience and expertise is invaluable when governments can change rapidly and ministers are increasingly fleeting. Even Lord Callanan, the minister who was answering in this debate, spoke appreciatively of the administrative support he had received. “I will have nothing said against the civil service,” he declared. Instead, he accepted that “the responsibility lies with ministers.”

And so it must. In the 1958 science fiction film that gave rise to the term, the Blob was an amoeboidal alien that enveloped the living beings it encountered. There are many dangers confronting the UK today but the civil service is not one of them. Incompetent ministers, intent on pushing through appalling legislation and grabbing ever more power for the executive, and a House of Commons too weak to challenge them, are a far greater threat to our democracy.