Jane Dudman: After David Cameron's Cold War with the civil service, Theresa May has a chance to put things right
As David Cameron announces his departure from parliament, Jane Dudman calls for Theresa May – no stranger to confronting public officials – to take a different tack with the civil service
"If you’re dealing with a Rolls Royce engine, which there is no doubt the British civil service in general is, you do not hit it with a blunt instrument.”
No, not a quote from Yes, Minister. But perhaps the former secretary of state for international development and former chief whip Andrew Mitchell – whose views those are – should have had a quick word with his former boss, David Cameron, before they both quit government.
Mitchell’s departure, in October 2012, was prompted by allegations that he had referred to a police officer as a “pleb”.
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Cameron’s more recent departure in June this year, following an unsuccessful two-month-long fight to persuade UK citizens to remain in the EU, was just as embarrassing. But there is a big difference between the two.
The former chief whip, despite losing his libel case against News Group Newspapers over the confrontation with the police officers, holds public servants in great esteem, telling CSW recently that he “always had the highest regard for the integrity and intelligence of the civil service”. The former prime minister, on the other hand, appears to have retained to the last what we might call a somewhat lesser regard for the officials carrying out his government’s policies.
The six years of Cameron’s premiership were marked throughout by attacks on civil servants. In 2011, Cameron pledged to confront what he described as the “enemies of enterprise” in Whitehall and town halls, and the so-called “mad bureaucracy” that was holding back entrepreneurs.
That attack, while unpleasant, was part of a wider coalition government policy that also saw the “bonfire of the quangos” in 2010 and the abolition of 192 government agencies, including the Audit Commission, which had monitored local government. You might – many did – disagree with the policy, but it was nothing if not consistent.
"So far, it’s hard to tell what attitude the new prime minister will bring to her relationship with the civil service. We know she is not scared of taking on public officials"
Worse, though, was to come, in the form of background briefings in some departments against some of the country’s most senior civil servants. In 2013, Lord Kerslake, then joint head of the civil service with Sir Jeremy Heywood, felt the full force of such attacks, with a series of stories in the press alleging that the prime minister had lost faith in Kerslake’s ability to lead civil service reform.
Kerslake survived that onslaught but left the civil service the following year, with a pointed tweet, following surgery for a slipped disc, when he wrote: “Incision measured 16cm. A pretty big knife in the back!”
As Kerslake told CSW last year, he was very unhappy during his time as head of the civil service about “noises off”, ie. anonymous briefings and criticisms. “Civil servants aren’t in a position to fight back. They wouldn’t want to – it’s not what they’re there for. Which is what makes it incredibly unfair,” he said.
Cameron showed little inclination to counter such attacks, but his parting shot as he left office was even more divisive and, for many, showed the extent of the former prime minister’s lack of understanding about pay and conditions within his civil service.
Against the express written advice of John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service, Cameron decided to pay a number of his special advisers more in their redundancy settlements than they were contractually entitled to, in order to compensate them for being out of a job as a result of his sooner-than-expected departure from Downing Street.
The decision to ignore Cabinet Office legal advice came at an extra cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds to the taxpayer, with Manzoni warning that it could set a precedent right across Whitehall. And, as CSW revealed last month, the higher exit pay was awarded to many spads who had already been given substantial year-on-year pay increases.
It has long been argued, by Manzoni among others, that it is important to pay civil servants appropriately for their skills, particularly when trying to attract new talent into the service. But big pay rises for Cameron’s special advisers – 24% in one case – are in contrast to the hundreds of thousands of civil servants who have endured years of pay “restraint”. Little wonder that the civil service unions are up in arms.
So far, it’s hard to tell what attitude the new prime minister will bring to her relationship with the civil service. We know, from her record as home secretary and her confrontation with the Police Federation over police reform, that Theresa May is not scared of taking on public officials.
But there is one small indication, perhaps, from earlier this summer. On 8 June, before the EU referendum and when May was still home secretary, she was the guest speaker at the Westminster Abbey Institute summer party in the abbey’s cloisters – very much home territory for a vicar’s daughter. May spoke, it appeared sincerely, about the importance of the public service ethos.
Now that she has more power, it remains to be seen whether the prime minister will, unlike her predecessor, translate those words into deeds. With civil servants facing a huge legislative programme as a result of the Brexit vote, on top of a busy set of domestic initiatives, it would be helpful if there were more than platitudes for the civil service.
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