Former cabinet secretaries slam ‘crazy’ Brexiteer attacks on civil service

Written by Richard Johnstone on 5 February 2018 in News

Intervention by three former civil service chiefs comes after leading Brexiteers accused the Treasury off fiddling figures to maintain a close relationship with the EU

Three former cabinet secretaries have moved to defend the civil service after a weekend of attacks from prominent Brexit supporters that accused government officials of undermining the UK’s vote to leave.

In a series of interventions, Lords Butler (cabinet secretary from 1988 to 1998), Turnbull (cabinet secretary from 2002 to 2005) and O’Donnell (cabinet secretary from 2005 to 2011) defended civil servants after prominent Brexit supporter Jacob Rees-Mogg accused the Treasury of “fiddling the figures” to ensure the UK stayed in a close relationship with the EU.

According to Rees-Mogg, Treasury forecasts "had been politicised" before the creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility. "With the referendum and with the EU, the Treasury has gone back to making forecasts,” he said. "It was politically advantageous for them in the past. It is the same now. I do think they are fiddling the figures."


His comments came after a leaked Treasury analysis suggested that Britain would be worse off under any Brexit scenario. It said that even if the UK were to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, the UK’s economic growth would be 5% lower over the next 15 years – and 8% lower in the case of a “no deal”.

The former cabinet secretaries condemned the comments, which came after Brexit minister Steve Baker was last week forced to apologise because he also appeared to accuse civil servants of deliberately developing the analysis to favour a continued close relationship with the EU.

Butler said he believed the actions were part of a deliberate “Brexiteer process of intimidation” of civil servants, which was “completely unjustified”.

He added: “It is unwise on the part of the Brexiteers, because the government can’t do this operation without the civil service. To demonise them isn’t really very sensible.”

Turnbull compared the attacks to the “stab-in-the-back” myth, which emerged in Germany after the first world war and was later taken up by the Nazis.

"Of course if you are selling snake oil, you don’t like the idea of experts testing your products" - Gus O'Donnell

“After the first world war there was an armistice, but the German army was then treated as the losers. Then, at the start of the Nazi era, the ‘stab-in-the back’ theme developed,” he told The Observer.

“It argued that ‘our great army was never defeated, but it was stabbed in the back by the civilians, liberals, communists, socialists and Jews’. This is what I think these critics are trying to do. They are losing the argument in the sense that they are unable to make their extravagant promises stack up, and so they turn and say: ‘Things would be OK if the civil service weren’t obstructing us’."

O’Donnell said honesty and objectivity ran through the core of civil servants “like a stick of rock”, and the forecasts which came from Whitehall would have been made in good faith.

Speaking on ITV’s Peston on Sunday show, O’Donnell said claims civil servants were deliberately using their analysis to promote the UK’s continued membership of a customs union with the EU after Brexit were “completely crazy”.

He compared Brexiteers to snake oil salesman, saying: “Of course if you are selling snake oil, you don’t like the idea of experts testing your products.”

He added: “The truth is, civil servants operate by the civil service code. The values are honesty, objectivity, integrity, impartiality.

“Their job is to look at the evidence and present it as best they can, analyse the uncertainties … but that’s what they do, they’re objective and impartial.

"This constant undermining of the civil service from within the Conservative Party has to stop" - Dave Penman

“And I think what you find is that tends to get accepted very nicely when it agrees with someone’s prior beliefs, but actually, when someone doesn’t like the answer, quite often they decide to shoot the messenger.”  

In an article on Civil Service World today, former Department for Work and Pensions permanent secretary Sir Leigh Lewis said Rees-Mogg’s comments were “contemptible” and unworthy of public debate.

“To accuse of dishonesty public servants who have no opportunity to reply is frankly contemptible,” he writes.

“To do so without adducing a shred of evidence to support his charge other than the fact that he disagreed with the content of the document is infantile; it would not survive as an argument in a court of law for one moment. To attack ‘Treasury officials’ as a group rather than, if he really had the courage of his convictions, by name is akin to cowardice. Would he have dared to accuse the Treasury’s permanent secretary or, say, its chief economic adviser by name of ‘fiddling the figures’?”

The general secretary of the FDA union representing senior civil servants said it was “increasingly clear that Jacob Rees-Mogg has no concept of what public service is”.

Dave Penman said that while civil servants are working flat out to deliver the best Brexit possible for the UK, Rees-Mogg is prepared to peddle unsubstantiated conspiracy theories to further his own vision of Brexit.

“This constant undermining of the civil service from within the Conservative Party has to stop. As prime minister and leader of that party, Theresa May needs to make an unequivocal statement in support of the civil service and take action against the parliamentarians and ministers making these unfounded accusations.”

About the author

Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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