Blob? What blob? Sunak rejects criticism of civil service

Prime minister says civil servants, in his experience, "work all hours day and night" to deliver what ministers want
Rishi Sunak. Photo: Ian Davidson/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

04 Jul 2023

Rishi Sunak has rejected the idea that civil servants are a ‘blob’ hell-bent on undermining ministers.

The prime minister said the officials he has worked with throughout his time as a minister have been "incredibly hardworking and diligent" and have "worked all hours, day and night, to deliver what I wanted".

Appearing at the Liaison Committee’s biannual meeting on the work of the prime minister, the prime minister Sunak said the officials he has worked with throughout his time as a minister have been "incredibly hard-working and diligent" and have "worked all hours, day and night, to deliver what I wanted".

Sunak was questioned by William Wragg on this depiction of civil servants by current and former ministers and in the media.

Asked by William Wragg, “I hear alarming reports of “The Blob” walking down Whitehall, thwarting the ambitions of ministers – do you recognise that characterisation?",  Sunak simply responded “no”.

“Blob” has become an increasingly common generic term used by some Conservative Party ministers and MPs, both current and former, to attack public institutions when government plans stall.

Home secretary Suella Braverman's name was put to a letter which used the term describe opponents of the government’s controversial Rwanda scheme, while ex-government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has used it to blame civil servants for the government abandoning plans to axe thousands of EU laws by the end of this year. It was reportedly first used in the early 2010s by then-education secretary Michael Gove and his advisor Dominic Cummings to describe “schools bureaucracy”, which included officials and teachers’ unions.

Asked where he thinks the “blob” accusations have come from, Sunak said: “It doesn’t come from me.

"My general experience has been, in the jobs I've had, whether it was starting out MHCLG, but also in particular the Treasury over the last few years and now in No.10, that I've always been supported by incredibly hardworking and diligent civil servants who responded to what I needed, and worked all hours day and night to deliver what I wanted."

Wragg, who is chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, also asked Sunak if blaming “blobonomics”, as former Conservative Party chair Jake Berry recently labelled it, is “really an excuse for weak ministers and unworkable policies”.

Sunak responded: "Ultimately the elected government of the day is responsible for the policies that it is putting forward, and I would expect and indeed have found in my experience the civil service to be responsive to implementing them.

“And, of course, that requires strong leadership and direction from ministers in grip over what's happening.”

Rather than criticising civil servants or ministers for policy progress stalling, Sunak suggested external factors were to blame: challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine “had put demands on the entire system”.

Sunak, who grinned through much of the back-and-forth “blob” chat with Wragg, was also asked if he, therefore, felt reports of relations between the government and civil service being at an all-time low were “somewhat exaggerated”.

The PM agreed, saying it would not be “conducive to delivering for the country” if that were the case.

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