As Boris Johnson prepares to step down, what do the next few months hold for civil servants?

How will officials support the caretaker government as Conservative Party leadership elections to decide the next PM get underway? Experts weigh in
Prime minister Boris Johnson chairs a meeting with his new Cabinet after resigning as leader of the Conservative Party. Photo: No.10/Flickr

By Tevye Markson

12 Jul 2022

Time is nearly up for Boris Johnson’s time in government. The prime minister resigned last week as Tory leader and announced his intention to step down as leader of the country once a successor is elected by his party.

Until September, when the new leader is set to be elected, Johnson and his new cabinet – who were appointed after an onslaught of resignations that forced his own – will play a caretaker-type role.

What will this mean for civil servants? How does the current situation differ from recent caretaker governments? And how will officials prepare for the next government? CSW spoke to former civil servants and Whitehall-watchers to find out more.

How will civil servants get ready to serve their next leader?

There have been several similar transitional periods over the last two decades, including the David Cameron-to-Theresa May transfer of power in 2016 and May-to-Johnson in 2019, as well as during wgeneral elections .

Civil servants will be “listening actively” to what each of the leadership candidates is saying over the coming weeks, says Gus O’Donnell, who was cabinet secretary under Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

“You're just pausing and keeping an eye on what the various candidates are saying and thinking about the feasibility of the various proposed policy proposals they're coming up with, about how you might implement them, the pros and cons for them.

“For example, the Treasury, you'll be noticing what the individual candidates are saying, and you'll be thinking about costings. You'll want to be prepared for a minister coming in and saying, ‘I've decided I want to cut this tax or change business rates’ or whatever.”

Before a general election, civil servants have lots of explicit material to engage with to help them understand what the new PM will be focused on, including manifestos and speeches. A party leader election is different.

“With this, there will be speeches and top lines but that is not going to be the same level of detail,” Institute for Government associate director and former civil servant Tim Durrant says.

The civil service will be looking closely at “everything that the candidates say, particularly as we get towards the final two and as it becomes clear who the front runners are”, says Durrant, who worked in international and domestic policy areas at the Treasury and the old Department for International Development.

It will be trickier for civil servants to work out what preparations to prioritise compared to the May-Johnson transition as it is less clear who will be victorious, he adds. A ballot this week will narrow down the candidate list, but there may still be several contenders.  There are also more key issues to consider – with Brexit being the primary focus last time around.

But civil servants “will definitely be prepared to work for the new leader coming in”, Durrant says.

And as Lord O’Donnell adds: “At the same time, the absolutely number one priority is to keep on with the day job.”

What sort of government will exist until a new PM is appointed?

Government will be expected to get on with policies that have already been announced – as Sarah Munby, the Department for Business, Environment and Industrial Strategy permanent secretary, set out in a memo to officials last week.

“While the leadership contest is in progress, we don’t expect radical new policy to be introduced unless required, but we do expect to continue to get on with the business of government,” she said.

“The government will focus on delivering the agenda it has already collectively agreed,” Munby added.

She said for most civil servants it would be case of “keep calm and carry on, though there may be a small number of areas of work where something very new is halted for now”.

But she added that this would not be like a pre-election period where there are specific rules about what the government can do.

Without these purdah rules, O’Donnell warns that Johnson “needs to take great care to stick with the role of caretaker and make sure that he doesn't make any decisions which would bind his successor in a way that they might not like”.

“I think that's the number one priority during this period,” he says. “With so many candidates out there with potentially different views, it’s absolutely right that no long-term binding commitments are made that can be avoided.”

“I think it will be [the PM’s] cabinet colleagues, who will be the first people to say ‘actually, no, we're not going to do that, we're going to wait’,” he adds.

The Johnson administration has already put plenty of legislation through parliament, which civil servants will be getting on with.

“Things are already in train and I think that will continue,” Durrant says.

This includes the approach to the war in Ukraine, which has cross-party agreement, and action to tackle the cost of living. Durrant says the Treasury will be actively looking into further options for the latter so that options are ready for the next PM and chancellor.

“It doesn't mean the government can't do anything for the next few months but it just means it's not going to start anything new off its own bat,” he adds.

How will the civil service handle the transition?

The civil service has become very used to change, with four PMs taking charge since Tony Blair stood down in 2007, and ministers changing regularly.  As the policy of the government of the day changes, says Durrant, “the civil service gets on with it”.

He says Brexit showed just how much the civil service is able to adapt, with civil servants “turning so much of the way UK government works through 180 degrees” after the referendum vote under May and adapting again when Johnson brought forward his own vision for leaving the EU.

And as crises arise, he says, “the system is good at making sure the important things get to the top.”.

Thomas – who is the IfG's programme director and previously held several roles in the civil service including a director at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – says there may be some uncertainty among civil servants amid all the change.

But he thinks “there's a recognition that this is going to be an odd period and if the priorities change, so be it”.

Civil servants are often more frustrated by “shorter-term” delays to announcements, events and project milestones, Thomas says. But he says officials "get that this stuff happens and that is part of their job to respond to the political conditions that exist in the government".

Change can even be "quite energising" for civil servants, O'Donnell says.

“You always want to think about: could there be better policies? Could particular outcomes be delivered in a better way? It's always good to be thinking and innovating.

“The world's changing, the challenges are changing, the possibilities for the ways in which to meet those challenges changes as technology changes. It’s a very dynamic world and embracing change, that's what you do in the civil service.”

But he is also “a big fan of ministers staying in post for a long time”.

He references the Department for Work and Pensions, which had five pensions ministers between 2005 and 2010.

"That's not good," O'Donnell says. "Then, during the coalition, [Lib Dem pensions minister] Steve Webb came in [in May 2010] and stayed there a long time [five years]. That was excellent.”

So while civil servants will be looking out for the next PM and their agenda, for some it may be what comes next – the ministers they appoint and how long they are kept in post – that makes a bigger difference to their working lives.

“In an ideal world, ministers stay in post, get to know their departments, get to know the subject,” O’Donnell adds. “That's good for them and good for policy and it's good for the country and the civil service. That's what you would like to see.”

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