Dave Penman: Cometh the hour, cometh the PM?

Only the prime minister can address the growing fracture in the relationship between ministers and officials. But will he?

Prime minister Boris Johnson Photo: PA

By Dave Penman

03 Apr 2020

“Unprecedented” is a word bandied around quite regularly but rarely appropriately. It’s difficult to conjure another phrase, though, to describe Sir Philip Rutnam’s on air resignation as permanent secretary at the Home Office. It was a dramatic and emotional moment which genuinely stunned journalists, politicians and the public alike, and it’s not often you can say that. 

As we’ve already made clear, the FDA is supporting Sir Philip, so I do not want to go in to detail on his case, which, as he’s indicated, includes a decision to pursue a claim of constructive dismissal at employment tribunal. 

An event such as this drives a media feeding frenzy which can quickly consume you. The drive for a quote, a new angle, and, particularly, an “exclusive” becomes relentless. As a result, I’ve read genuinely insightful analysis, recycled garbage and, as new angles dry up, completely fabricated stories driven by a naked partisan interest. I know I should be less naive but it is still quite shocking to be at the heart of an issue, know the facts, and see outright lies splashed across a newspaper headline.


It’s easy to blame the media in these circumstances but they aren’t a homogenous group. Some journalists have less or more ability, principle and political motivation. The vast majority I deal with, though, regardless of the political leaning of their newspaper, are seeking out truth, want corroboration and try to deliver a good story. Whilst the stories they choose and facts they marshal can make a particular point, it is, in the main, reporting of events rather than creating them.

Events can drive that, like Sir Philip’s resignation, but often in the political world the story comes from briefing, or “spinning” as us children of the New Labour era would call it. Creating a story or ensuring your own political angle is emphasised is not new, it’s just that political parties got better at it. The strive for a greater volume of news was fertile ground for those that saw an opportunity to feed the increasingly ravenous beast and get their angle covered favourably.

In the past this has mainly been a spectator sport, as politicians tear lumps out of each other in print, on air and, increasingly, online. Whilst the civil service has been the focus of some of this attention over the years, it was usually frustration spilling out in to the pages of a paper from ministers who couldn’t help themselves. 

As with so many issues now, Brexit appears to have changed all that. It was a lightning rod for attacks on the impartiality and integrity of the service and, unforgivably, on some individual civil servants. Generally speaking, this was from outwith government, then Department for Exiting the European Union minister Steve Baker’s criticism of his own government’s analysis from the despatch box aside. No.10’s ensuing paralysis, where for several hours it couldn’t confirm or deny whether the official government position was to rubbish the government’s own position owed more to The Thick of It than House of Cards.

Until recently, our main criticism had been that ministers have neglected their duty to defend the civil service, knowing that civil servants cannot publicly defend themselves. This is not simply convention, it is hard wired in to the civil service code.

Not now though. Unattributable briefings against civil servants, usually “sources close to X”, have become the new norm. Ministers enjoy plausible deniability whilst journalists are able to verify they come from the centre of government with a ministerial nod and a wink. Maybe this is good sport in a campaign for a referendum, leadership election or even general election, but it is a destructive cancer when it comes to good government.

As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, ministers can also be the subject of this tactic. Whether it comes from within or outwith the service, it is indefensible and only serves to justify a further escalation in the briefing war. But let’s not beat about the bush, the responsibility for this modus operandi and the vast majority of the bile it produces lies at the door of ministers. 

Maybe some relish the mistrust and chaos this is creating, maybe it’s deliberate, who knows? I gave up 4D chess a long time ago. What is clear, though, is that the country needs politicians and civil servants to be working as one unified team and that requires leadership. Government is about the big issues: citizens’ security, prosperity and health. It’s not a game or a theory to be tested. Ultimately, only the prime minister can solve this, as it is a rot that has set in from the top. The question is, following the events of the last few weeks and now in the midst of a public-health crisis, will he?

Read the most recent articles written by Dave Penman - We need a constitutional reset but a pick 'n' mix of ideas is not the answer

Share this page