No walk out in Whitehall: Civil servants have too much integrity to respond to MPs’ attacks

Written by Dave Penman on 12 March 2018 in Opinion

Officials continue to serve the public interest despite DExEU’s Mr Lover Lover and a dodgy double act in the Commons

Jacob Rees-Mogg ​last month claimed the Treasury had deliberately skewed the evidence against Brexit. ​Credit: Yui Mok/ PA

It’s a rather odd experience having Sky News park themselves outside your front door on a Saturday afternoon and set up their camera in your living room. There was no logo on the side of the van, only a mahoosive satellite dish on the roof, so I’m pretty sure the neighbours thought I’d been done for dodging my TV license.

They do love a shot with a bookcase in the background. I have learned to my cost to sanitise the shelves of anything remotely controversial. One eagle eyed Twitterati spotted a bust of Lenin on my shelf (from a trip I made to the Soviet Union in 1990). Cue assumption about my politics to his followers – and my credibility with the comrades being raised for a few short hours.

It’s quite amusing to watch it back and hear the Sky News swoosh noise as they say, “now live from East Tilbury”, and I can almost hear the collective spluttering of tea from the good citizens of said little Essex town.

It is, however, never a sign that things are going well. It had been the most extraordinary week. Following the leak of the government’s own impact assessments on leaving the EU, Steve Baker, a junior minister at the Department for Exiting the EU, had found himself at the despatch box forgetting that he was a member of HM Government, rather than the convenor of a WhatsApp group.


Not only did he dismiss the analysis of his own civil servants, he made clear that he had little time for such analyses, saying in response to a question: “No I’m not able to name an accurate forecast, and I think they are always wrong.” Yes, a government minister at the despatch box saying he’ll never believe the government’s own analysis.

Such is the chaotic nature of government right now that later that night No 10 even implied he was speaking for the government, in what I can only describe as a political equivalent of mutually assured destruction between the warring factions in the Conservative Party.

He is not without humility, however, and the very next day he was heaping praise on his civil servants and tweeting how he was having a “jolly conversation” with his officials as he sought to assure them he “still loved them”.

Only a day later, Mr Lover Lover was on his feet again. Only this time he had clearly under-rehearsed a little double act with Jacob Rees-Mogg about a conversation someone had apparently overheard at a lunch, claiming that the Treasury had deliberately skewed the evidence against Brexit. Morecambe and Wise it wasn’t and, no sooner had Brexit’s Shaggy (Braggy?) stumbled over his lines, the source of the quote – Charles Grant from the Centre for European Reform – denied it and no one could quite remember how the third, fourth or fifth-hand account had come about.

"Of course, there was no walk out in Whitehall in response. The job of civil servants is to serve the public interest"

So Braggy once again found himself at the despatch box, apologising to Parliament because, apparently, it’s ok for a minister to say he thinks the civil service can’t count for toffee – but heaven forbid you mislead the House when you quote someone.

Moggy of course was having none of it. Unburdened by the need to prove anything, he kept up the attack, insisting Treasury officials were biased, presumably because they didn’t agree with him.

This was their shot across the bows to the Cabinet who, the following week, were considering their approach to a customs union. Undermining the public’s trust in the civil service was simply acceptable collateral damage, regardless of the long-term consequences this may have. We only need to look across the pond to see where this opportunistic undermining of public trust in government and its institutions can lead.

That is how I ended up being trolled by communists for my bust of Lenin. The fourth estate may well be a bunch of cynical old hacks, but they still have the capacity to be surprised by the new depths that can be plunged in the name of Brexit. They kept asking me how civil servants would respond to the almost unprecedented undermining by a serving minister, perhaps hoping for some spontaneous walk out in Whitehall.

Steve Baker’s car crash week and Moggy’s unashamed doubling down on the unsubstantiated allegations of bias were simply a deliberate attempt to undermine government analysis which didn’t suit their cause. They find it easy to assume bias from officials because they themselves view the world through the prism of their own ideological beliefs and cannot conceptualise what it is to act impartially.

Of course, there was no walk out in Whitehall in response. The job of civil servants is to serve the public interest, to give the best impartial professional advice and then act on the decisions ministers take – even if those very same ministers undermine their integrity and question their professionalism.

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Dave Penman
About the author

Dave Penman is the general secretary of the FDA union. He tweets as @FDAGenSec

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Submitted on 12 March, 2018 - 13:41
It is all too easy to attack Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg, but perhaps Mr Penman would like to answer critical reviews made by senior academics of Treasury official forecasts with respect to alleged impacts on the economy and comment on why (apparently) Treasury officials turned down the invitation to discuss the premises adopted for these forecasts with senior academics?

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