The leader of the House shares the training on offer for officials; his conversion to civil service fandom; and his infamous style guide
Henry VIII was, among his many other faults, a lazy monarch. Anyone found using the king’s signature was guilty of treason – but still, rather than sign his own letters, he entrusted a stamp with his signature on it to a scribe, who then had to be pardoned on a regular basis so he might be allowed to keep breathing.
This is the anecdote Jacob Rees-Mogg presents when asked about the strict rules he issued to staff upon being appointed leader of the House of Commons two and a half years ago. The leaked style guide instructed civil servants to use imperial measurements in letters; demanded double spacing after full stops (a hangover from the age of typewriters); and banned an extraordinarily large number of seemingly ordinary words, including “hopefully”, “very”, “equal” and “unacceptable”.
The banned list was mostly a bid to avoid “cliché and verbiage” in his letters, Rees-Mogg says, and is clearly context-dependent. It was reported at the time that he had uttered words on the list 1,189 times since becoming an MP, according to Hansard, and he says “very” no less than 14 times in his 40 minute phone call with CSW.
But the rules also have a deeper significance, he says: “If you are writing a draft for a minister, you are representing the state and the state ought to write coherent letters. It oughtn’t have a lot of jargon; it ought to be clear.
“This is just about courtesy and propriety of correspondence. It’s formal, it’s serious. You’re not writing to your mate, you are writing on behalf of the government… so it’s a serious effort that should be taken properly,” he says.
Alluding to the list’s instructions to use people’s titles correctly, he adds: “The queen is the fount of all honour. If the queen has seen fit to honour people, the least you would have thought the people who work for her could do is get that right on the envelope.”
It is for a similar reason that Rees-Mogg feels so strongly that civil servants should understand the technical requirements of good correspondence – they should never sign a letter on behalf of a minister, for example. “Ministers are accountable, not civil servants; it’s not only bad manners for ministers to get officials to sign on their behalf, it is also constitutionally wrong,” he says.
“What you send out and append a minister’s signature to has status and although the misuse of a ministerial signature would no longer be misprision of treason, nonetheless, it’s quite serious,” he adds.
Soon after Rees-Mogg’s call with CSW, the accountability of politicians suddenly becomes a hot topic – albeit for rather different reasons. Following the government's failed attempt to overhaul the parliamentary standards process, numerous MPs' financial declarations are under scrutiny. The leader himself faces questions relating to loans from Saliston, a company he owns, but in statements to the press, Rees-Mogg says he has declared his ownership of Saliston “clearly” in the Commons register and to the Cabinet Office.
“Many civil servants don’t necessarily think about parliament until they have to,” Rees-Mogg says. It makes sense that a director general or permanent secretary preparing to be grilled by a select committee on a project that has gone awry may spend the days leading up to it thinking of little else; but for many officials, parliament may feel like something remote that they interact with only occasionally.
It’s common, the leader of the House says, for civil servants not to give it much thought “until a complaint comes their way and it turns out that something serious has happened that they need to deal with and their department is being discussed at Prime Minister’s Questions – and suddenly everyone’s eyes are turning to it and wondering, what went wrong?”
“Many civil servants don’t necessarily think about parliament until they have to"
Rees-Mogg has made it his mission to correct this state of affairs. His office has been running a range of training programmes to enable civil servants to better understand parliament, which he says is “essential” to helping officials support their ministers effectively. The training covers everything from answering parliamentary questions and writing correspondence to engaging with MPs on legislation.
But as much as anything else, the programmes aim to impress upon officials how important their relationship with parliament is. “This is, I think, one of the points that gets missed: it’s not government and parliament against each other; it’s government all working together to make the lives of the people we represent better,” Rees-Mogg says. “Civil servants don’t want mistakes to be made, and they don’t want the grievance to arise in the first place that needs to be redressed. Working with MPs helps to ensure that is genuinely the situation, with the understanding that we are there to do the right thing for the country jointly, and try and help the people that we all represent.”
He says he wants to ensure constituents are not forgotten when civil servants respond to MPs’ queries. Letters they draft will inevitably be forwarded to the constituent, he notes. “I can see that from the point of view of a high-powered civil servant, some of the questions that get asked don’t necessarily seem of fundamental importance. But bear in mind, for somebody to write to their member of parliament seeking information, that person has done something that is very important to them as an individual… It deserves a proper reply,” he says.
Photo: Baldo Sciacca
Alongside the training, Rees-Mogg has been holding Zoom sessions and inviting civil servants to visit parliament – both of which he says “foster understanding and help to see that we’re all actually on the same side”.
In that spirit of understanding, he says he doesn’t want to make training compulsory. “I hate compelling people to do things,” he says. “Because if you say to people ‘You’ve got to do this,’ they’ll sit there with their arms folded grumpily at the back of the class and ignoring what they’re having explained to them. On the other hand, if you say to people, ‘Look, this will be really useful,’ and they come on voluntarily, they’re much more likely to engage.”
His goal, therefore, is to convince civil servants that understanding parliament better is worth their while because it will make their lives easier. “If I [as an MP] can give a good answer to my constituent who is seeking redress of grievance, then I’m likely to be more well disposed towards the government, less likely to ask troublesome questions or be very demanding in the House, therefore the burden on civil servants is less,” he explains. “And it becomes a virtuous circle that constituents get better treatment, civil servants are able to get on with the main part of their job rather than dealing with complaints. And so engaging with parliament is good for everybody.”
Not only that, but it is “constitutionally essential” to ensure there is a good working relationship between parliament and government, and civil servants should make it their business to “oil the wheels”, he argues.
He notes that the ministerial code dictates that written parliamentary questions should be answered at least as well as a Freedom of Information request – “actually, it should always be answered better because the people putting down a parliamentary question have a mandate for the question. They’re not just an individual who’s interested in a subject. And therefore, ensuring high quality answers is constitutionally proper.”
At the moment, he says, that bar is not always being met. “I spend Thursday mornings at the despatch box answering business questions, and actually the issue of correspondence and parliamentary questions does come up frequently. It is clear that MPs do sometimes feel that they have had slow responses from departments, or responses that do not fully answer the question,” he says. He adds: “The pandemic caused a real problem, and working from home delayed responses and stopped the informal conversations that people have that speed things up.
“For the first six months, I had no difficulty defending departments saying, ‘Look, we’ve had a pandemic. Please be patient.’ That’s become a harder case to make 18 months on”
“For the first six months, I had no difficulty defending departments saying, ‘Look, we’ve had a pandemic. There’s a lot going on, please be patient.’ That’s become a harder case to make 18 months on.”
“Some departments are better than others,” he adds, name-dropping the Department of Transport and HM Revenue and Customs for their “excellent” responses. He declines to name those he’s less impressed with – but makes it known that the Procedure Committee reports on departments’ performance.
CSW wonders how, in light of his comment about working from home, the leader of the House feels about many civil servants continuing to work remotely. “I’ve said before that I think ambitious people who want to get on will go into the office because it’s going to be the way to get on in your chosen profession,” he says.
Despite his stated dislike for compelling people to do things, he declines to say whether or not he believes civil servants who still routinely work from home should be made to return to the office. “I’m glad to say [the civil servants in] my office come in all the time because they love being in the office,” he says instead.
Asked later if his decision not to wear a mask in the House could alienate staff in parliament who are still worried about coronavirus, he says only that “everyone working in parliament is extremely pleased to be working in parliament, which is the most wonderful place to work.” (Last month, he said his party’s “convivial, fraternal spirit” meant not wearing face coverings was in line with the government’s guidance to wear masks around “people you don’t normally meet”.)
Rees-Mogg has nothing but praise for the officials who work in his parliamentary office, whom he calls “the most incredibly hard working civil servants you could meet”.
“They are here all hours,” he says. The MP was the last member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet to be appointed in July 2019, and found his private secretary waiting late in the evening to escort him to his new office and brief him for business questions the following day. The whole team was there again at seven the following day, which he calls “an absolute model of hard working civil success”.
Back when he started the job, Rees-Mogg said he “previously thought only corporate bankers worked such hours”. Now, he adds: “I’m a complete convert. I thought the civil service would be completely different to what’s turned out to be the reality of the leaders’ office and Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee, who are incredibly hard working and turn things around very effectively. I knew they’d all be very clever. I didn’t realise quite how hard working they’d be.”
“I thought the civil service would be completely different. I thought they were all in their offices trying to stop Brexit”
What did this convert think of civil servants before then? “I thought they were all in their offices trying to stop Brexit,” he says, laughing. In 2019, he said Treasury forecasts made before the referendum were “clearly politically influenced” and accused HMT civil servants of “fiddling the figures”. Former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell later said making the claims without supporting evidence amounted to “a form of bullying”.
Asked if he still thinks those figures were fiddled, Rees-Mogg says economic forecasts “in their nature are always wrong” but avoids accusing officials directly. He adds: “The ridiculous stuff we got on the effects of Brexit when George Osborne was chancellor was politicised forecasting of a low order.”
CSW wonders if Rees-Mogg is at all concerned his past comments may have damaged his relationship with the civil service. No, he says, adding: “It’s the politicians’ fault; it’s politicians who are accountable, not civil servants. So the stuff George Osborne came out with on the basis of what he had instructed the Treasury to do was his responsibility, not the Treasury’s.”
“I think in politics you have to make your case and you have to push the state to be independent where it is apolitical,” he adds, nodding also to ministers’ attempt to change purdah rules determining what civil servants could say in the run-up to the 2016 referendum. “So do I think my criticisms at the time were unfair? No I don’t, because the then-government was quite wrongly pushing the civil service in a political direction.”
Officials may be pleased to see that this once-sceptical politician is willing to give them a vote of confidence. So long as they continue to shun jargon and remember that crucial double space after their full stops, that is.
Civil servants who have questions or requests about the parliamentary capability training on offer can contact firstname.lastname@example.org