16th December 2019
After Boris Johnson’s win, civil servants know the axe is hovering over departments including the DExEU and DfID
Those who work for the government clearly are no better at predicting the future than any other group of ringside spectators at the UK’s political circus. Last Friday’s electoral earthquake was as remarkable to us as it was to you.
But we’re professionals: sure, many on the civil service payroll will have voted for or against a Conservative majority. Some of us rather naughtily may even have taken part in election campaign activity. But back at our Whitehall offices we prepared for this blue tsunami no less than we prepared for the possibilities of Labour or coalition governments.
As it turned out, those of a remain persuasion have had to compress our Kübler-Ross grief cycle into a couple of days so that we can crack on with helping the new government get its feet under the desk.
Sorry, folks. What did you think we were going to do? Die in a ditch? Hide in a fridge? Civil servants don’t – and shouldn’t – have that option. No, you don’t have to be a true believer to be a good civil servant: I’m living proof. But you do need to be committed to implementing the policies of the government – of whatever colour. Like many voters, sometimes you just have to hold your nose.
In fact, today our boss Mark Sedwill – aided by senior civil servants across several departments – will be preparing to brief a few incoming new ministers following the mini-reshuffle that is under way this week. Sedwill is also tipped to take a central role in driving the far deeper government shake-up in February – along with a certain D Cummings. More on him in a bit.
Naturally, we’re all champing at the bit to find out exactly what the government plans to do with its shiny new majority. Will the Department for Exiting the European Union vanish, Marty McFly-style, after the UK successfully travels back to 1973? Will the Department for International Development – with its tempting multibillion aid budget – be tucked into the Foreign Office like a Fabergé egg into a dusty satchel? Will the Department for International Trade be absorbed into a mega-business department headed by Rishi Sunak? Of course, not all of these predictions will turn out to be true – common sense suggests that the amount of time and money involved in making wholesale changes to government institutions requires caution.
Thing is, there’s more than a whiff of change in the wind, and it’s likely that this “who dares wins” prime minister may throw caution to it. The slightly chilling new lexicon that’s emerging to describe the “government of the people” may well be how that change is branded.
Which brings us back to Dominic Cummings, who according to the Telegraph and the Times – and as I predicted in August – will spearhead this radicalist overhaul of the civil service.
We won’t find out too much more about this until after the new parliament boots Brexit over the line at the end of January. But right now – while the government is still assembling itself, Avengers-style – is an excellent time to ask what’s going to happen to a civil service still catching its breath after three brutal years of wrestling with the contradictions of Brexit.
I have three predictions. First, we can expect an initial honeymoon period for the civil service. For example, it’s likely that as soon as Brexit stops being a political front-page issue and starts becoming a technical page-six issue, you can expect to start hearing cabinet ministers talk again about the “brilliant civil service”. As long as we behave ourselves, that is: the increased frequency of policy leaks to the Sunday Times and the Financial Times in the months up to the general election will very likely continue in 2020. But all honeymoons come to an end. And given what Cummings has just said about wanting to make the hiring and firing of civil servants easier, unbelievers of all stripes should expect some very tough love.
Second, Boris Johnson will continue to impregnate the civil service with new policy challenges, like the idea that getting Brexit done will trigger a baby boom. The prime minister may have a point – with a stagnant economy and the high cost of contraceptives, unprotected sex will soon be the only entertainment post-Brexit Britain can afford. We are all children of Boris now.
Number three might expose me to accusations of wide-eyed naivete – but a civil service damaged by Brexit will only strengthen its commitment to the UK public. I believe that the vast majority of civil servants will agree with their union boss Dave Penman’s warning that any ideological shake-up of government is likely to have a major impact on the delivery of public services. I don’t speak for 400,000 civil servants, but I believe we will always fight that. Last month Ipsos Mori data suggested that medics and civil servants are increasingly the most trusted professionals in the UK, while faith in politicians has sunk to an all-time low. And no matter what Johnson actually wants, civil servants feel a strong obligation to repay that trust.
Since it’s Christmas, I’ll go one step further. Kindness and empathy, as ex-civil servant Kit Collingwood suggested last week, are at the heart of what it means to be a civil servant. Well-known incurable romantics such as ex-civil service boss Gus O’Donnell have even said that wellbeing – not economic growth – should be the main goal of government. We can only hope.