John Oliver, the British comedian who hosts Last Week Tonight – a satirical American TV show on HBO – has a recurring segment where each time Donald Trump does something that looks so outrageous that he’ll have to resign, balloons fall from the ceiling, characters in costume appear and a band marches on with majorettes, only for it to be halted as the president refuses to resign. It is sometimes difficult to put the momentous events we have been witnessing around us in to context when it feels like every other day they are “trumped” by the next unprecedented event.
As the government announced parliament was to be prorogued (wowza); then parliament passed the “Benn Act” to compel the government to seek an extension to Article 50 in the event of no-deal (holy chalupas); then 21 Tory MPs had the whip withdrawn, including Churchill’s grandson (say whaat?); only for the PM to say we would be leaving on 31 October regardless, with the implication being that he would ignore an act of parliament (WTF!) – you could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve witnessed a decade’s worth of politics in a single month.
Then, of course, came the real doozy, the one that unprecedented the unprecedentable: the Supreme Court unanimously ruled the proroguing of parliament unlawful (horrifocked…this just broke my urban dictionary).
Where does all this leave the civil service? At one end of the spectrum, the political shenanigans have no impact. The civil service is there to serve the government of the day. The current prime minister is having the same problem as the last one: persuading parliament to adopt a position on the most significant issue facing the country.
Under these circumstances the civil service has to get on with preparations for no deal as this is a potential – if not likely – outcome, as well as support the government in its stated objective of trying to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement.
The political context may make many civil servants feel unsettled, particularly as no-one is able to predict where this is all going and we are very much in uncharted waters.
Brexit has toxified the political discourse in this country as the debate in the Commons chamber on the day of its return all too vividly demonstrated. The civil service has suffered as a result of this, from baseless accusations of bias, to ministers undermining their own officials from the despatch box, to the targeting of individual civil servants for abuse and even death threats.
We have, justifiably, and over a number of years, criticised the prime minister and ministers for their failure to confront these attacks, but events of the last few weeks have disrupted and undermined the very basis on which the current civil service operates and the principles that all civil servants consider fundamental to their role.
The prime minister’s contradictory statements on his commitment to leave the EU on 31 October and whether he will uphold the law of the land raised serious concerns among our members over a potential conflict between complying with the law and serving the government of the day. It led us to an unprecedented moment of our own – we wrote to the prime minister to seek public assurances that no civil servant would be asked to breach their obligation, under the Civil Service Code, to “comply with the law and uphold the administration of justice” (FFS why won’t this urban dictionary work?).
As I said in my letter: “Whatever political calculations are being made about how this may play out with groups of the electorate, the suggestion that the government, and by implication the civil service, will be asked to ignore the settled will of parliament, is causing increasing consternation among civil servants… and no prime minister should place the civil service in such an invidious position.”
I have no idea what tactical considerations are going on in No.10, in what increasingly looks like a high-stakes game of poker being played with the EU, the Conservative Party and parliament. The prime minister, however, has obligations that go beyond tactical political game playing. He has a duty to ensure that the integrity and impartiality of the civil service is upheld, not only for the benefit of his own government, but for future governments. There should be no grey areas when it comes to the duty to uphold the law and abide by the Civil Service Code.
As yet I have no response from the PM, though I’m assured he’s on it. He was, of course, expecting to have more time on his hands so I’ll forgive him the slight delay. But the longer this speculation continues, the greater the damage done to the civil service.