Andrew Greenway: Can you do complicated tasks while being sniped at by ingrates? Government has Brexit jobs for you

Following news of Olly Robbins' likely departure, Brexiteers must stop treating civil servants like parents turning up at your first Glastonbury and act with level-headedness

Photo: PA

By Andrew Greenway

01 Jul 2019

I’m not in the job market at the moment, but with the impending departure of Oliver Robbins and Tom Shinner from two of the hottest seats in Whitehall, perhaps it’s time to dust off the CV. Suddenly there seems to be a surplus of difficult, complicated tasks to be done in the public eye while being chided by a raucous group of thankless ingrates. Frank Lampard can’t do all of them.

I’m rather thin-skinned, though I could probably cope with being described as ‘Rasputinesque’, as Robbins was. Say what you like about Grigori, the man had charisma. I would, however, feel uncomfortable about the prospect of receiving death threats, like HMRC permanent secretary Jon Thompson. This feels like an almost inevitable outcome faced by the next person to take on Robbins’ role. Call me a snowflake if you like, but I’m out.

That such vitriol can be directed against officials would have been almost impossible to imagine five years ago. Robbins became a cipher for everything Brexiteers despise about the institutions they rail against – the desire to make progress through compromise, and a certain, dogged commitment to actual facts. In the final analysis, the prime minister’s chief negotiator was hated because he wasn’t a believer. But the civil service isn’t supposed to believe in things. That is not their job. It is a game played by artisans, not artists.


There’s a very good reason for this. Most people don’t want their public services, or foreign policy, or nuclear deterrents, conceived and maintained by people who believe everything will be just fine. We prefer those people to be ones who take exacting pains to know that everything will be just fine, insofar as that can be done in an uncertain world. I don’t want to believe we’ll have a reliable supply of drinking water after October 31. I want to be absolutely bloody sure.

Our next prime minister has a choice, then: to find someone else willing to play the fall guy again, or appoint someone willing to compromise on some of Britain’s most fundamental bureaucratic virtues. This is not an enviable choice. It is one that can only be made by a leader who is wilfully ignorant as to the consequences of their actions. Sadly, we have never had a front-running candidate more qualified in this regard.

Shinner was talked about by some as being the mixture that could somehow marry both sensibilities; someone capable of playing the reassuring pragmatist, but a street-fighter with it. Like a detective from a 1970s cop show, he might not follow all the rules, but by God, he would get results. According to no less an authority than an aide to David Davis, this was a man "so integral to the process we joked that if he was hit by a No.53 bus on Parliament Square, Brexit wouldn’t happen". Except now, like several other senior civil servants with the administrative skill and emotional intelligence to keep a foot in all the camps, he has decided to hand in his badge.

As the Institute for Government has pointed out, the departure of senior officials from key roles who’ve spent less time there than you would in an undergraduate degree is business as usual, not news. Perhaps the main difference with Shinner is that he’s young enough not to have fallen into the clutches of the civil service pension trap. His financial skin in the game is not so great, and shipping out now still makes sense. How his older colleagues must envy him.

Brexit has created more dividing lines than two children squabbling in the back seat on a long car journey. One of them is a pitched fight between mavericks and pragmatists. Heart versus head, Cavalier versus Roundhead. By preference and tradition, the civil service has always been on the side of realism. Whitehall has long prided itself on playing the counterweight, the white face behind the politicians’ red nose, driving the clown car around SW1A. 

The less rabid end of the Brexit spectrum knows it will need some of this sangfroid to make their fevered dreams a reality. But you get the impression that having the dour, grounded presence of officials hanging around simply embarrasses the Leave movement’s more intelligent tub-thumpers. It’s like your parents turning up at your first Glastonbury. They insist on asking innocent but highly irritating questions. How come it costs five quid for some cheese on toast when you’ve paid £150 to get in? Is the audio quality for 90% of the music supposed to sound like you’re underwater? When we last took you on a camping holiday in 30-degree heat, you rang the NSPCC. So why is this so great? "Because it’s Glastonbury, mum. Forget the details, just look at how wonderful it all is," as a man in a Grateful Dead T-shirt urinates against the back of your tent.

Come to think of it, Brexit Britain could well end up having a lot in common with Glastonbury. Dodgy infrastructure, previously normal-ish people let off the leash to be as obnoxious as they wish, a select few getting very expensive tickets to lord it up in the much more pleasant VIP camps. Oh, and the fact that hundreds of thousands of people will convince themselves afterwards that sitting in a field with sunstroke with people who bore you as they rob you was a time they cannot wait to return to. I do not look forward to watching Mark Francois on the Pyramid stage next year. I imagine Mr Robbins and Mr Shinner will not even watch on iPlayer.

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