Dave Penman: In a batsh*t Brexit world, someone’s got to stand up for the civil service

Now Remainer voices have joined the fray, civil service values are under attack like never before

"Robbins v Skuttle: that’s a pay-per-view I’d happily fork out 20 euros for." Photo: PA

By Dave Penman

29 Mar 2019

I don’t know about you, but increasingly it feels like Brexit is turning people a little batshit. I’m not talking about those who hang around Westminster with their enormous European or Union Jack top hats, imploring cabbies to honk for Brexit, Europe, HP sauce or whatever their cause is. I’m talking about those who, pre-Brexit, seemed sensible enough – less of a straight-banana-short-of-a-bunch types.

I give you Exhibit A, m’lud. Mark Francois, honourable member for Dunkirk South. Francois reminds me of the Benny Hill character Fred Skuttle, who always had a silly cap on and kept saluting (google it, millennials). The MP’s utterances have become increasingly batshit as he recognises he can barely represent himself in a debate, never mind any settled view of his peers. So instead, Francois tries to push the boundaries, hoping they’ll keep asking him on telly – a strategy that has proved remarkably successful up until now, I suppose, so who am I to criticise?

Francois repeatedly makes World War II references, insists to it was Engurland alone what won the war and that Europe should therefore continue to show gratitude. He is convinced that everyone is a secret Remainer – including judges, the media and the civil service – and recently suggested that Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins should be locked up in the Tower of London. “Is that pugnacious enough?” he asked the interviewer, as if challenging Olly to fight.


Olly Robbins v Fred Skuttle, best of three submissions or a knockout: that’s a pay-per-view I’d happily fork out 20 euros for.

I present Exhibit B: screaming Lord Adonis. He’s actually the prosecution’s main witness, as pre-Brexit, he was a well-respected minister and widely acknowledged brainiac. It all started with his obsession on Brexit, which SLA clearly thinks is an act of collective self-harm.

I followed him on Twitter up to the point when half of my timeline was taken up with his increasingly hysterical ramblings. “You ok hun?” I once pithily replied to one of his rantier tweets, but it didn’t seem to have the desired effect. He then started gunning for the civil service. Mild criticisms gave way to accusations of betrayal, then warnings that he would refuse to work with any civil servant who had “colluded” to deliver Brexit. This was sure fire batshit territory, not least because he appeared to assume that if Corbyn’s Labour got elected they’d come a-knocking at his famously Blairite door asking him to serve.

Now he’s gone further, suggesting that permanent secretaries will be sacked for collusion when the as-yet-uncommissioned public inquiry into Brexit is launched. Responding to reports that cabinet minutes have apparently increasingly included detailed discussion around the interests of the Tory party rather than the country, his view was not that ministers should resign in shame but that the cabinet secretary should go.

A variety of left-wing commentators, including respected pre-Brexit-batshit figures like Jonathan Powell and Polly Toynbee, have suggested that the civil service has a role to look after the national interest and, in a period where the government of the day is failing to do so, civil servants should act. Lord Kerslake and Lord Kerr have this week echoed some of this sentiment, though in less strident terms. Exactly what this perm sec proletarian guard should do is, as yet, unspecified, but they should certainly do something.

Figures on the left, dismayed at the prospect of Brexit and increasingly conscious that they have no power to influence its outcome, are looking resentfully to the civil service as the adult in the room who should just call a halt to it.

We’ve kind of got immune to batshit antics of some of the wilder Brexiteers. The danger is it becomes the received wisdom on the right that it was a Remainer civil service that undermined their great project, while on the centre-left the service is blamed for the failure to hold government to account for putting party before country. At the same time the harder left, through a combination of ideology and lack of experience, view the civil service with suspicion and assume it will block their radical agenda.

It feels like civil service values are under attack like never before and that’s why, as part of our centenary project, the FDA has commissioned the Smith Institute to produce a report on “impartiality in a post-truth world”. The report will include contributions from politicians, civil servants and academics, exploring why an impartial, permanent, professional civil service, with the confidence to speak truth unto power, is vital for effective and efficient government. Lord O’Donnell has also agreed to deliver an FDA centenary lecture later in the year on this theme, drawing on both international and his own experience.

After all, in a batshit Brexit world, someone’s got to stand up for the civil service. As usual, step forward the FDA.

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

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