A Brexit boom for the civil service? Former cabinet secretaries offer reasons for Whitehall to take heart

Written by Sue Cameron on 16 February 2018 in Opinion

Cabinet secretaries hold the fort in times of crisis and have seen splits over Europe come and go. Here’s why one of them thinks Brexit will be a civil service renaissance

Lord Butler, cabinet secretary between 1988 and 1998, believes Brexit will be a renaissance for the civil service. Credit: PA

"It was frantic, it was frightening, the pressures were intense and continuous,” says former cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong. “But aren’t you lucky to have that job? I wouldn’t regret a single moment of it...Terrific fun!” Then comes a small rider: “Almost all the time.”

To be Britain’s most powerful civil servant guarantees a roller coaster ride as I discovered when I interviewed the five surviving former cabinet secretaries for a new series on BBC Parliament. Between them, the five, all now in the Lords, had to cope with wars ranging from the Falklands, vividly recalled by Lord Armstrong, to Iraq and Afghanistan. There were terror attacks: Robin Butler, who had been with Margaret Thatcher on the night of the Brighton bomb, describes diving under the cabinet table after the IRA launched a mortar at Downing Street; and Richard Wilson, who was left minding the shop on 9/11 in the absence of the PM, tells the astonishing, sometimes farcical story of what really happened inside No 10 on that terrible day.

Gus O’Donnell describes another “incredibly scary” but very different drama: the great crash of 2007/8 when it looked as if none of the banks would be able to open the following Monday. Bank failures were something he knew about from history but he had never dreamed he would face such a catastrophe himself.


And when it comes to cabinet splits, the junking of collective responsibility and bitter divisions over Europe, these former cabinet secretaries have seen it all before. Lord Armstrong even offered to resign over Brexit – in 1975.

He was principal private secretary to the PM at the time. He had spent some years working with Tory Edward Heath to get Britain into Europe. When a new PM, Labour’s Harold Wilson, decided to hold an in/out referendum on Europe, Lord Armstrong said that if the nation voted to leave he would be prepared to resign as PPS because having been so strongly associated with going into Europe he would lack credibility if the nation voted to leave. In the event, the country voted against Brexit – though it wasn’t called that then – and Lord Armstrong went on to become cabinet secretary to Margaret Thatcher.

Managing your PM is a crucial part of the job. Thatcher liked to open a cabinet discussion by announcing the conclusion. Lord Armstrong once persuaded her to let the others speak first. He says it was “like sitting next to a piano wire being pulled tighter and tighter and I wondered if it would snap.” It didn’t. When the others had gone she asked: “Did I do alright Robert?” To which he replied: “Yes, prime minister.”

“Managing your PM is a crucial part of the job. Thatcher liked to open a cabinet discussion by announcing the conclusion”

All the former cabinet secretaries are passionate proponents of cabinet government in the face of prime ministers with presidential ambitions. As cabinet secretary, Richard Wilson warned PM Tony Blair that he should not try to govern like Napoleon. Lord Wilson says that it would be too “dramatic” to say he threatened to resign over Blair’s plan to set up a prime minister’s department – he simply argued “strenuously and successfully against it”. He says this with a steely smile…

Blair’s disregard for cabinet government was to have tragic consequences when it came to the Iraq war. Andrew Turnbull, who was cabinet secretary at the time, says Blair always told his cabinet that they would discuss the military options for the war “next week”. Next week never came.

For those who fear that today the civil service is in decline with stories that it cannot cope with Brexit – take heart. It is not just that this month minister Steve Baker was forced to make a grovelling apology to MPs for wrongly suggesting that officials had been fiddling forecasts. Lord Butler says that ministers cannot deliver Brexit on their own. It is simply too big a task. He believes that Brexit will be a renaissance for the civil service, reversing the trend of the last two decades when ministers increasingly relied on political advisers at the expense of officials.

He has to be right.

On Brexit, not even the ablest ministers will be able to master all the detail or identify all the issues on their own. Already the civil service is expanding and as Brexit unfolds officials can expect more influence and status. Whatever their private beliefs, Brexit is going to be professionally fascinating. As Lord Butler says, new arrangements for areas like customs and immigration will also be big executive jobs for the civil service. However great the policy hurdles ahead, there is going to be a Brexit boom for Whitehall.

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Sue Cameron
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Sue Cameron is a writer and broadcaster on politics, parliament and Whitehall. Inside Number 10, her interviews with the five surviving former cabinet secretaries, will be broadcast on BBC Parliament on Sundays at 8pm starting on February 4, and available on iPlayer

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