By Benedict Cooper

09 Jul 2024

Naming and blaming has undeniably harmed the relationship between officials and ministers in recent years. What will it take to restore trust, after so much tension? 

In the post-Brexit referendum atmosphere of 2019, a revealing comment by Dominic Cummings made its way into the papers. Any civil servant who, in his view, “snubbed” Brexit should be purged.

Cue a bloody period of resignations and sackings. Cue a “hit list” of officials marked for moving on. Cue the emergence of, in the words of a senior civil servant quoted in the Guardian, a “poisonous, horrible atmosphere” in Whitehall, “a feeling that retribution could strike at any time for offering the wrong advice to the wrong person”.

Civil servants aren’t accustomed to suffering “retribution”. Certainly not for offering advice. But a series of contentious policies and generational issues – austerity, Brexit, Rwanda, Gaza – have severely strained the trust on which the civil service-ministerial relationship relies. 

Ministers have routinely named and blamed officials who are supposedly not “on-side” with policy, and have asked questions – or made outright accusations – about the impartiality of the service. In turn, senior officials have been pushed out, or quit. Some have gone public with the reasons why. 

What has all this done to the relationship between officials and ministers? And what will it take to restore trust, after so much tension? 

Pithy slogans have a way of sticking: “Get Brexit done”; “Build The Wall”. So too do negative epithets like “Woke Whitehall”

For all its malignance, the latter phrase was well aimed. It suggests – to a certain audience – a civil service working towards its own agenda, rather than upholding the impartiality which underpins its integrity as an institution.   

Former civil servant and current fellow at the Institute for Government Jill Rutter says: “You are doing a job where your personal views on political objectives and policy choices are not the thing you’re being paid to pursue. 

“Most civil servants realise that if you want to pursue your own agenda then you ought to go into politics. The deal is that you recognise you haven’t chosen to put yourself up for election, so you check your personal political views at the door of your department.”

But deals have two sides. And if officials are to forgo their personal opinions, says Clare Moriarty, former permanent secretary at the environment and exiting Europe departments, what they need in exchange is for their impartial advice and expertise to be taken in good faith.

“The question is: is the advice being respected?” she says. “Trust has to be the cornerstone in a relationship which is fundamentally unequal. Ministers can speak out, but civil servants can’t.”
Moriarty left Whitehall in March 2020 and became chief executive of Citizens Advice a year later. Looking back, she says that around the time of her departure, trust and respect between officials and ministers had already begun to break down.

“We saw ministers being more inclined to just say, ‘I’m going to do this.’ That seemed to be shifting in a way that if it went on, you’d start to have problems. 

“It’s an uncomfortable space to be in constantly, where you’re giving advice and then receiving a different instruction. If you take away the trust and the respect that makes it workable, you can quickly get into a place where it becomes oppositional.”

To see quite how oppositional that relationship can get, we don’t have to look back very far. 

The three years of rancour that followed Cummings’ edict to purge officials saw the forced departures of major Whitehall figures Mark Sedwill, Simon McDonald and Jonathan Slater. Under Truss, a short, sharp period of almost total dysfunction began with the dismissal of Tom Scholar.

Rutter traces much of this back to the way in which Brexit affected the political debate from 2016 onwards.   

“One of the problems with Brexit is that it stopped being a policy choice made on merits,” she says. “It became, in the eyes of some Brexiteers, an article of faith. The question was asked, ‘Do you believe in Brexit?’”

Brexit may have moved down the agenda, at least politically. But many big, divisive issues remain. And they are issues that have brought political and moral questions to the fore: austerity, migration, the ensuing Rwanda policy, and the Windrush scandal before that. And, since October last year, the Middle East and Britain’s relationship with Israel.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman says that these deep paradigm questions have weighed on the civil service-ministerial balance.

“What we’ve seen over the last five to six years are some pretty fundamental philosophical and moral issues about how the government has been dealing with things. Questions about the rule of law, matters of conduct,” Penman says. In turn, he continues, a fundamentalist “You’re with us or against us” attitude has developed among ministers.

“There’s been a kind of infection in some ministers, who reject any challenge to their position. Ministers just want officials to reinforce what they believe. Baiting and stoking civil servants became a strategy. It’s now become fair game.”

Someone who knows about this strategy all too well – who was on the infamous hit list and was ultimately taken out – is Simon, now Lord, McDonald. As permanent under-secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and head of the diplomatic service until August 2020, McDonald felt the full force of the Cummings purge.

“What happens when an official is ordered to carry out a policy that not only clashes with their own personal views, but also crosses an ethical line?”

His exit sent waves of anger through Whitehall, and marked for many a dangerous departure from the principles which guide ministers’ working relations with their officials. Far from being protected under these principles, McDonald says, officials like him were simply “hung out to dry”.

Speaking to CSW, he says: “In the old days there was ministerial accountability. Ministers were taking the decisions so ministers carried the can because that was where responsibility lay. 

“Now, ministers are not willing to take the responsibility when it doesn’t work out and civil servants are routinely blamed. It’s not the decision-taker’s problem, it’s the implementer’s problem. That’s a twisting of the system which is wrong. The briefing against civil servants, which some ministers do routinely, is a disagreeable development of the last few years.”

He notes another change as well, with increased ministerial involvement reaching beyond the top posts of a department: “If a secretary of state does not like a senior civil servant for whatever reason, they just get rid of them. Liz Truss took a very detailed interest not only in the most senior people in the Foreign Office but also in the layers down from that, and she exerted her influence. That division of what’s for the civil service and what’s for the minister has all but disappeared.”  

According to Rhys Clyne, an associate director at the IfG, this development hasn’t just created an uncomfortable working environment for officials. It has skewed a founding principle of the civil service-ministerial relationship to the detriment of good government.

“It’s really important that civil servants should be able to test policy proposals, point out delivery problems and challenge assumptions,” he says. “It’s vital that the civil service is given the space to challenge and advise robustly and to speak truth to power.” 

McDonald agrees, noting that: “The function of the civil service is not simply to implement the policy of the government. The function of the civil service is to think through those policies, to think of alternative ways of implementing them, and to expose the possible problems.” 

The challenge now is that ministers appear to perceive the exposing of problems as insubordination rather than a proper role of the service.  

Whose government is it anyway?

“The rules seem to be changing before our very eyes, without people really thinking it through before they are changed. When I was the permanent secretary to Boris Johnson, when he was foreign secretary, it worked in the old-fashioned way, in that Boris Johnson was content for me as his permanent secretary to run the diplomatic service, and for me that was a good, clear division of labour. Foreign secretaries since Johnson have been very active in what traditionally would have been permanent secretary business. Liz Truss and Dominic Raab both interfered in ways that Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, Geoffrey Howe would never have done.”
Simon McDonald

“You can’t have the civil service either mutinying and saying, ‘We’re not prepared to implement your policy’, or undermining it. I think there can be a perception among ministers that the civil service has got its own agenda and is trying to undermine decisions by ministers. I’ve never seen that happen.”
Clare Moriarty

“At the heart of this, there’s an ambiguity over accountability between ministers and civil servants and how you can disentangle who is responsible for what in practice. One aspect of this is that it is always difficult to distinguish between advice on policy and policy implementation and the exact roles of ministers and civil servants.”
Rhys Clyne

According to the civil service code, officials must not “act in a way that is determined by party-political considerations”, nor “allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions”. But what happens when an official is ordered to carry out a policy that not only clashes with their own personal political views, but also crosses an ethical line?

We don’t have to look back very far to find examples. When career diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall quit the service in 2019, she was crystal clear about the reasons. Her resignation letter stated that she was no longer willing to “peddle half-truths on behalf of a government I do not trust”. The issue at stake: Brexit, again. The decision to resign was taken after months of self-critical thinking; a fraught “internal struggle” as Hall Hall put it. 

Expounding this struggle, the letter asked profound questions about the conscience of an official “when tasked with implementing a policy with which they do not agree, or that they consider unethical or even illegal”. 

“Is our primary duty to the elected government of the day,” Hall Hall asked, “even when it may be breaking the law or wilfully deceiving the public?”

Today, Hall Hall’s bio on X reads: “Free to speak at last”.

To some, this dilemma is a relatively easy one to square. As Clyne says: “Civil servants can reconcile their role in delivering policy that they might not personally agree with by assuring themselves that it’s been reached democratically, it’s within the law, and therefore it’s not their role to adjudicate morally on that policy. That’s why that process really matters.”

But what happens when the process itself may have been subverted? When an official’s conscience drives them to – in the words of Sir Douglas Wass’ 1983 Government and the Governed Reith Lecture – “oppose actions which are either unlawful, unconstitutional, or which involve some great affront to human values”. 

In 2019, writing for CSW, former senior civil servant Stefan Czerniawski argued that civil servants need to be alert to the possibility of a government crossing a legal or ethical line which could undermine its democratic legitimacy.

“If any civil servant judges that ministers’ democratic legitimacy has broken down, they must accept that their ethical authority has also broken down,” Czerniawski wrote. “Whatever they do next, they do as an independent moral agent, personally responsible for their decisions and actions. They may choose to continue, accepting that responsibility, or to walk away.

“They won’t be easy choices,” he continued, “but civil servants must recognise their responsibility to bear these issues in mind, and the civil service needs to be much more ready to support them in doing so.” 

Five years later, it is the civil service unions which seem to be taking up this challenge. Both the PCS union and the FDA are fighting for clarity for members over two highly contentious issues: British arms sales to Israel and the Rwanda legislation.

In April, PCS publicly declared that its members must be allowed to “cease work immediately” on any contracts relating to UK arms sales to Israel. To enforce this right, the PCS is now considering legal action. 

And at the start of May, the FDA filed an application for a judicial review over concerns that orders under the government’s Safety of Rwanda Act may be breaching both the civil service code and international law.

The High Court ultimately rejected the FDA's challenge. But the searing statement issued by Penman when announcing the decision – accusing the government of being “cowardly” and “reckless” – summed up so many of the issues civil servants must grapple with in the face of questionable legislation.

He said: “We have been clear all along that our challenge is not about the policy itself – that is a matter for parliament. Civil servants know that they have to support the government of the day and implement policy regardless of their political beliefs. But they also know they have a legal obligation to adhere to the civil service code. 

“Faced with a government that is prepared to act in this cowardly, reckless way, it is left to the FDA to defend our members and the integrity of the civil service.”

“The boundaries between personal conscience and public duty have been crossed, if not redrawn”

And commenting on the PCS Israel arms campaign, Paul O’Connor, head of bargaining, says: “All of this is bringing us into increasing conflict with interpretations of what should happen with ministerial instructions, what our members’ obligations under the codes are, and what happens in a situation where our members know that something is unlawful. The times have brought the whole thing into sharper focus. It is becoming increasingly a ground of conflict. 

“What is the civil service code on political impartiality actually designed to do? I think that needs to be much more clearly defined so that our members know what type of political activity is acceptable and what isn’t. Our view is that the lowest possible bar should be set.”

To some, the traditional pillar of impartiality still stands, and the bar doesn’t need to move. Civil servants don’t go to work in the high offices of state believing they won’t be involved in some major and, inevitably, controversial policy. Nor do they require all advice – however sound – to be followed into policy.

“If you can’t live with that,” says Moriarty, “then the civil service is probably not the place for you.”

But in the political maelstrom of the past decade, the old principles of impartiality, objectivity, even personal-professional morality, have been tested to new limits. Careers have ended. Bitter disputes have arisen. The boundaries between personal conscience and public duty have been crossed, if not redrawn. 

And while era-defining events still unfold globally, the same heat that fired it all remains. The “internal struggle” of the official goes on. 

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