Opinion: Forecasting the fallout from the Patel-Rutnam row

Written by Alex Thomas on 18 March 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

The Rutnam resignation has exposed underlying tensions between ministers and civil servants, says Institute for Government programme director Alex Thomas

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Many civil servants watching Sir Philip Rutnam’s emotional resignation statement will have found themselves wondering what his move might mean for the wider civil service. Rutnam said that he hoped that his actions might “help in maintaining the quality of government in our country, which includes hundreds of thousands of civil servants loyally dedicated to delivering this government’s agenda”.

But will it? To answer that, we need to separate the threads in this chain of events.

First, the allegations of bullying behaviour against the home secretary. Nobody, whether a minister, political adviser or civil servant, should go to work in fear. That doesn’t mean ministers can never swear (spoiler: they do, and that’s not necessarily a problem); nor does it prevent them expressing strong views and frustrations about their department and colleagues (spoiler: they do that too).


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Anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label defines bullying as “an imbalance of power which is used to either defame, harass, intimidate or upset another person”. It is important to highlight the power imbalance as something that is built into many relationships inside government, just as in other walks of life from the boardroom to the playground. It’s a good definition, and one that an independent process could use as a standard for investigating allegations. A new, clearly-defined approach would protect both the complainant and the alleged perpetrator.

Second comes the ability of civil servants to speak truth to power, and the responsibility on ministers to listen. This has always been an art rather than a science, and strong ministers recognise the value of honest advice.

It is not yet clear how the Patel-Rutnam affair will ripple out across government, but there is at least a chance that it makes it more likely that officials will temper their views. That would be a mistake – but it would also be wrong for civil servants to see the Rutnam route as a normal end to a career. The civil service has no democratic legitimacy of its own: it draws its authority from serving ministers and from demonstrating its competence to do so. Wise civil servants will – unless and until something else happens – get on with the job of providing honest advice in private.

“Nobody, whether a minister, political adviser or civil servant, should go to work in fear”

That points to the third strand in the Home Office drama: the competence and capability of the civil service. The first duty of a permanent secretary is to gain and maintain the confidence of their secretary of state, and something obviously went wrong here. The phrase “fit for purpose” haunts the Home Office and its current political boss seemingly does not think that the department meets that test. The public accountability of senior civil servants for running their departments and projects has long been a topic of debate for Whitehall-watchers. We might see the subject move into ministerial sights, heralding a more contractual relationship between officials and their political masters.

Recent events have also shown the limits of the ability of the prime minister and cabinet secretary to smooth things over. If a permanent secretary and minister will not play ball, then Rutnam has shown it is not always possible to set up the usual permanent secretary exit with a pay-off or another job.

Take all this together, and put it alongside the briefings that other senior civil servants at the Treasury and Foreign Office are on a “hit list”, and the Patel-Rutnam affair does feel important. It has at least exposed tensions in all three areas above. While more dramatic resignations seem unlikely (although with this government it is hard to be sure), and both ministers and the civil service will be keen to move on with the business of government, these pressures are not going away any time soon.

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Alex Thomas
About the author

Alex Thomas is a programme director leading the Institute for Government’s work on policymaking and the civil service. He is a former senior civil servant.

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