What would each of the Tory leadership contenders do to the civil service?

From headcount cuts to battling “the blob”, Civil Service World explores what the potential PMs have said and done
Photos: Alamy

Five candidates are left in the running to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and, therefore, the next prime minister. As MPs prepare to whittle down the shortlist to two, civil servants look likely to be swept up in a race set to be dominated by clashes over spending as well as rows over culture wars.

Here CSW looks at what each of Boris Johnson's potential successors has said about civil service reform, and what their political record has to say about how they might run government.

Rishi Sunak

Sunak is attempting to position himself as the fiscally responsible candidate, and his time as chancellor suggests a spending splurge would be nowhere in the near future if he were to become prime minister.

In the last Spending Review – several months before Boris Johnson announced plans to slash 91,000 civil service jobs – Sunak promised to reduce the “non-frontline” civil service headcount to pre-pandemic levels as a cost-cutting measure. The exact number of jobs to be cut was never confirmed as the Treasury was unable to define what was meant by “non-frontline” roles – but was expected to run into the tens of thousands.

Sunak has also imposed successive pay freezes on public servants, and kept civil service pay rises low since then.

A Sunak win is likely to bring more of the same – he has challenged his leadership rivals who have pledged tax cuts early on, saying: "We need to have a grown-up conversation about the central policy question that all candidates have to answer in this election. Do you have a credible plan to protect our economy and get it growing?

"It is not credible to promise lots more spending and lower taxes."

It is somewhat up in the air what stance Sunak might take on the ongoing row about remote-working arrangements in the civil service. In May, Treasury staff were told their passes would be tracked to make sure they were spending time on site. But while the then-chancellor had reportedly made it clear officials should be coming into the office some of the time, he did not dictate a minimum – suggesting he may be more tolerant of hybrid working than some of his former cabinet colleagues.

Liz Truss

A Truss premiership could bring further squeezes to public spending and civil service jobs. The foreign secretary has hinted that she is in favour of reducing the civil service headcount, writing in The Telegraph: “I will get the private sector growing faster than the public sector, with a long-term plan to bring down the size of the state and the tax burden.”

But in somewhat mixed messaging – or a clear display of where she does not want cuts to fall – Truss reportedly pushed back against a call to reduce the size of her own department earlier this summer. She reportedly wrote to Boris Johnson in June rejecting a request for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to cut 900 staff – well below the 20% minimum the government is seeking to cut across the board.

Truss has also won the backing of government efficiency minister and anti-work-from-home crusader Jacob Rees-Mogg, which may worry civil servants hoping for an end to briefings against hybrid workers. Writing in the Daily Mail, Rees-Mogg said Truss “knows how to get the most out of Whitehall and tackle the blob”.

He also noted that as equalities minister, Truss had scrapped the use of “pernicious unconscious bias training” for civil servants in 2020.

Penny Mordaunt

The junior trade minister who has quickly emerged as the bookies’ favourite this week is among those promising civil service reform.

“We have to admit that Whitehall is broken. There are great people that work there but in my administration you will see it look and feel very different, very fast," she said.  "We need to do some serious machinery of government changes.” 

Speaking at a launch event in Westminster, she did not specify which areas of government would need rearranging, but added: “We going to have a tighter cabinet, ministers of state that have clear and timely deliverables that are powerful and reach across Whitehall.”

She likened her party to Sir Paul McCartney’s recent Glastonbury set. "He was playing new tunes but what we really wanted was the good old stuff,” she said, saying the government should make a return to “low tax, small state, personal responsibility”.

Kemi Badenoch

The recently ex-equalities minister is the only candidate so far to propose a specific machinery of government change, promising to break up the Treasury if she is successful. HMT would keep responsibility for spending but No.10 would take on responsibility for growing the economy, with a new Office for Economic Growth.

In a recent stump speech she said she wanted to “change the way the Treasury works” and said her experience as exchequer secretary – before her current post – had given her unique insight into the barriers to economic growth.

And in an interview with The Times, she added: “I didn’t feel that the Treasury did economic growth well. I think sometimes economic growth is very hard when other departments are making big spending requests.”

Badenoch has meanwhile positioned herself as the "anti-woke" candidate, with recent briefings pitching her against civil servants that she and her aides believe were determined to frustrate her efforts to ban gender-neutral toilets in public buildings.

She brought this thinking to her ministerial brief, objecting to unconscious bias training and saying critical race theory is “political” and is “getting into institutions that really should be neutral – schools, NHS trusts, and even sometimes the civil service”. In March, she pledged to reform civil service diversity to give it a greater emphasis on what she called “common sense, shared values and rigorous evidence” and eliminate the “proliferation of unproven training materials”.

But despite tensions with civil servants in general, Badenoch has praised her own staff in the Cabinet Office's Race Disparity Unit for their research on the disproportionate impact of Covid on ethnic minorities.

Tom Tugendhat

Tugendhat, a former solider, is the only candidate with civil service experience, having worked for the Foreign Office in Afghanistan before becoming a military assistant to the chief of the defence staff. Now chair of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has made defence spending a key plank of his leadership bid, promising to spend 3% of GDP on defence and spending.

He has said little during his leadership run on his plans for the civil service, but his time as chair of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee could indicate some of his priorities for reform. In 2018, he called for a “revolution at the heart of government” to fix siloed foreign policy. He said successive foreign secretaries had been “hobbled” by the lack of power at the Foreign Office, which he said had “lost control of key aspects of overseas influence, like trade and development, and has been obliged to take part in a tug-of-war with the Cabinet Office over anything that involved national security and the EU”.

More recently, he has called for more regional diversity in the civil service.

While the debate on working from home was raging in January, Tugendhat endorsed a comment by the director of centre-right think tank Onward, Will Tanner, suggesting people should be less concerned with civil servants attending their offices in Whitehall and more interested in where they were based geographically.

Tugendhat said regional hubs were “essential”, adding: “Everything from public transport and local economic development to schools and housing would be viewed differently if towns became centres of power again not dormitories for nearby cities.”.


Read the most recent articles written by Beckie Smith - FCDO urged to 'step up and take effective action' as aid prevented from reaching Gaza

Share this page
Read next