As Brexiteers trashed Sir Ivan Rogers' reputation, why did ministers stay silent?
Many talented civil servants have stepped forward to work on Brexit, says Dave Penman of the FDA union. So why aren't ministers doing more to defend them?
The Christmas break is always a good time to try to get a bit of airtime for a story, as it’s generally a bit quieter as politicians spending precious time with their loved ones, or indeed family. And so, just as the last of the Alka Seltzers were being dissolved, I was interviewed by the Guardian on the toxic politics of Brexit.
The piece focused on the failure of the government to admit publicly how difficult and time-consuming it all is, leading to those who may actually know about such matters, and dare suggest such a thing, being pilloried in the press.
I wasn’t only talking about the roasting the UK Ambassador to the EU Sir Ivan Rogers had received, following the leak of his private memo about the length of time trade negotiations may take, but it was up there as a prime example.
Who knew clairvoyance was one of my many attributes? On Tuesday, Sir Ivan announced his resignation and his leaked valedictory memo to staff was all over the press. In it he talked about the difficulties our country faces as we negotiate our exit from the EU and the necessity for civil servants to do what they are ultimately supposed to: speak truth unto power.
And so, as day followed night, a succession of former ministers took to the airwaves, not only to trash Sir Ivan and accuse him directly of leaking the memos, but to call for a more “enthusiastic” proponent of Brexit to lead the negotiations.
"Her Majesty’s Government stayed silent in the face of this relentless attack on the integrity, capability and impartiality of the civil service"
To the deafening sound of tumble weed rolling down the streets of Downing and King Charles, no government minister – let alone the PM herself – was available to distance themselves either from the character assassination of Sir Ivan, or the suggestion that 150 years of constitutional niceties should be ditched overnight.
I’m sure all of this was just a coincidence. Iain Duncan Smith, who seemed at one point to be on telly more than Ant and Dec, was flying solo without any encouragement from Her Majesty’s Government. But of course, we’ll never know, as Her Majesty’s Government stayed silent in the face of this relentless attack on the integrity, capability and impartiality of the civil service.
I made the point this week that diplomats are made, not born, and what the UK needs as we enter these negotiations is experience and skill, not belief. By the time the six o’clock news was on air, it had been announced that Sir Tim Barrow, the current political director at the FCO would be Sir Ivan’s replacement, and he certainly fits that bill.
So as the headlines of yesterday surround the fish and chips of today, what are we to make of all of this? In past few months, the prime minister has publicly criticised civil servants, trivialised those who suggest the service is being under-resourced and sat back while officials have been attacked by politicians and commentators.
"There is clearly no turf war between officials and ministers, as was alluded to by some in the press yesterday, and talk of such is simply scaremongering"
This has been fuelled to some degree by the politics of denial that Brexit will be difficult, complicated, resource-intensive and take time. Some clearly don’t want to hear this, in government and outside, so when anyone does stick their head above this particular parapet it’s shot off by a Union Jack-embossed bullet.
I despair at times when some politicians only view the world through the prism of their partisan political beliefs. They struggle to understand the ethos that drives most civil servants in serving the public interest.
It was no surprise to me that following the referendum result, many talented civil servants were keen to work on Brexit for the government, despite in many cases, their own views running counter to that decision. They did so because they were motivated to deliver the best result possible for the country: that’s why they became civil servants in the first place.
They’re also a clever bunch, so Brexit is a huge intellectual challenge and will undeniably be fascinating to work on. And of course, if you’re thinking about your career, a stint working on Brexit will be unlikely to do it any harm.
There is clearly no turf war between officials and ministers, as was alluded to by some in the press yesterday, and talk of such is simply scaremongering. What there is, though, is a hugely complex and difficult task that is critical to the future success of our country, which minsters and civil servants alike are grappling with in very difficult circumstances.
My father was fond of repeating wee homilies as I was growing up and the one that springs to mind here is “there are none so blind as those who will not see”. For some, any challenge, disagreement, or indeed advice that runs counter to their rigidly-held belief is a betrayal and they seem only capable of judging others by their own standards.
The unedifying spectacle of politicians trashing the reputation of a committed public servant, and calling for the politicisation of the civil service simply to serve their own political ends, should have been roundly, and swiftly, condemned by a succession of government ministers.
This was not the government’s finest hour, but one I hope that some important lessons have been learnt from. Or as my father would put it, good judgment comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgment.