May delivers highly personal 'thank you' to civil service
Prime minister applauds Grenfell Tower and terror responses, but calls on Whitehall staff to “be bold” in facing future challenges
Theresa May has issued a highly personal “thank you” to the civil service for its support over the past 12 months, but called for “renewed courage and vigour” in meeting future challenges, including Brexit.
Making an unpublicised appearance at the Civil Service Live conference, the prime minister said she had found the support of Whitehall staff hugely valuable in recent months, and particularly in the wake of last month’s general election, in which May lost her parliamentary majority.
In a 15-minute appearance at the event, organised by the Cabinet Office in conjunction with Civil Service World’s parent company Dods, May lauded the professionalism of Whitehall staff, and took questions from event attendees. However, she began with an expression of gratitude.
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“I want to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to you all for everything you’ve done to support me as prime minister over the past year, and particularly over the past month,” she said.
“It’s hard to put the emotions of the past weeks into words, but I particularly appreciated and will never forget the warmth of the welcome and the sheer professionalism of the civil servants who greeted me in No. 10 after the election, and the many across Whitehall that I’ve had the privilege of working with since.
“We are facing some of the greatest challenges of our time. It’s not just about negotiating Brexit and building a country that works for everyone, but we’ve had four terrorist attacks in the past few months and the appalling tragedy in Grenfell Tower.”
May said it was at such times of challenge that the service’s “character and commitment shines through” as staff went the extra mile to serve the country.
“I appreciate it deeply, and wanted to say – not only on my behalf, but on behalf of the whole country – a huge “thank you” to you all,” she said.
After praising departmental staff, May went on to call for a new era of creative thinking from Whitehall, including in relation to Brexit negotiations.
“I don’t want us to be timid; I want us to not say ‘let’s play it safe as we try to meet those challenges’. I want us to be bold in meeting these challenges,” she said.
“I want us to be bold and to strike out with renewed courage and vigour; to act with that unshakeable sense of purpose, of building a better, fairer Britain that I believe the British people want to see.
“Of course, we won’t get everything right. But what I want is your creativity. I want you to think big.”
Asked what civil servants could do to secure the best outcomes in the Brexit negotiations, May pointed to a combination of plain talking and creativity.
“Don’t give people the advice you think we want to hear; give us the facts,” she said.
“We have political decisions to make, but we want the best possible advice.”
The prime minister said finding a solution for the UK to leave the European Union with minimal impact on the land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic was a particular area where “thinking outside the box” would be welcomed.
“Let’s think creatively about what we can do, and how we can use new techniques and new technology to deliver for us,” she said.
More light-heartedly, May also used her appearance to observe that Immigration Enforcement’s stand at Civil Service Live had featured a polar bear skin, which she said was an image that would remain with her from the event.
“I used to be home secretary, and I can think of no reason why Immigration Enforcement should have a polar bear skin, but I’m hoping that someone can tell me at some stage,” she said.
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