As a former minister for the Cabinet Office, Oliver Dowden is someone I have had reason to work with. He was approachable, engaging and prepared to listen. He ignored what we said, but he at least looked like he was listening attentively.
In this role, he spoke at the FDA’s centenary celebration, made a few self-deprecating jokes and recognised the contribution that the FDA has made to the civil service over the past century. If you weren’t there, it was a good night. I’m not a civil servant and my interaction with ministers is limited, but you get a bit of an impression and he felt like decent sort of minister, whether I agreed with him politically or not.
He may not be a household name, but he’s been a minister in a number of departments, including latterly DCMS. He's seen first hand the contribution civil servants have made, before, during and after the peak of the pandemic.
It was therefore all the more surprising that it was Dowden whose comments reached a new low for this government, as one senior civil servant said to me this week. At a fringe event at the Conservative party conference, he chose to name check Sarah Healey – his permanent secretary up till a few weeks ago – then deliberately misconstrue her words to pander to the baser elements of the audience.
He knew his comments about getting off your bike would be lapped up by the party faithful and media alike. He knew that his allusion to civil servants, including Healey, not working when they were at home was not true. He knew her comment about exercising was about being able to balance wellbeing more easily without the need for a commute while working from home.
Of course he knew, but he didn’t care. He didn’t care that such reckless remarks would have an impact beyond the individual and further erode the trust between ministers and civil servants. He didn’t care that she would have no opportunity to answer back and so it was an easy hit for him, brave, brave politician that he is. He didn't care that the civil service has worked miracles during the pandemic, pioneering new working practices and continues to do so. He didn’t care that hybrid working is what the majority of civil servants want, recognising that that there are elements of most jobs that are better done in person. He didn’t care that hybrid working is already saving the taxpayer millions with reduced office space requirements or that it’s critical to delivering the government’s agenda on Places for Growth, moving thousands of senior roles out of London. He didn’t care that hybrid working has been embraced across the economy and sectors, including the announcement this very week from Lloyds that they expect 80% of their staff will have a hybrid workstyle, saving acres of office space.
He didn’t care because it's not the point. The point is that attacking working from home by civil servants plays well with the party base. It fits with the anti-woke narrative that for some reason Dowden feels an obsession with demonstrating his credentials on. He didn’t care about the damage he and the other brave, anonymous ministers have done to morale when they continually carp on to the press about home working.
If the civil service wasn’t delivering the government’s priorities, they’d have a point. But of course, they don’t. It’s an artificial battle of binary choices conjured up to demonstrate how tough they are, to an audience that knows no better and pundits who couldn’t care less.
The absolute obsession that ministers have with this issue is absolutely nothing to do with whether home working is a more or less efficient way to work. It is simply a convenient distraction and another manufactured front in their culture war.
So, whatever comes next – more anonymous briefing, those cringing water cooler anecdotes or even a return to quotas, know this: this is not about serious government, it’s about votes. As ministers have demonstrated time and time again, they will happily sacrifice individuals, the moral of the service and effective government on that altar. And if they can get a few cheap laughs from the party faithful on the way, all the better.