Dave Penman: Priti Patel’s pay attack on civil servants more dark arts than silly season

Summer recess spurns all kinds of stories, but the international development secretary’s splash on ‘crazy’ Whitehall salaries was particularly cowardly

According to reports a source close to Priti Patel complained of "the ‘crazy’ salaries of Whitehall’s top mandarins". Credit: PA

By Dave Penman

05 Sep 2017

Like many parents, I’ve got little choice but to depart for my annual sojourn in August. This mass migration over a six-week period leads to parliament shutting down and caused the term “silly season” to be coined. Silly season of course really just means that there is less of a drip feed of briefings that make up a lobby correspondent’s life. A lot changes at this time in the world beyond Westminster, and the earth continues to rotate on its axis, which surprisingly is not SW1.

In the vacuum, stories have a momentum of their own and can lead to politicians, like the Bisto kid, being led by the nose into responding. Big Ben’s bongs, or lack of them, was the best example. I caught the news from my forest hideaway, aghast that the prime minister was really intervening on the debate about “’elf and safety gone mad” in silencing the bells for four years.


The furore over Labour MP Laura Pidcock saying she wouldn’t be cosy or friends with Tories in parliament was another example. A quote to a less-than-mainstream website, which would not normally register on the Richter scale of politicos, was given undue prominence and spun to attack Pidcock and what she stands for. As an MP for a working-class community devastated by industrial decline, she was articulating what many of her constituents felt – successive governments have let them down and she, as a Labour politician, points the finger at the Conservatives for that. They wouldn’t have been my words and I think they misunderstand the commitment of many politicians from all parties. But the vilification she received will, I suspect, only harden her views.

Then, of course we have the politicians who seek to use the silly season as an opportunity for their own Andy Warhol moment. Cue the “women-only carriages in trains” comment from Labour’s shadow fire minister Chris Williamson. It was in response to the news of a sharp rise in the number of sexual offences committed on trains, which is clearly a matter of serious concern. One which probably requires greater thought before speaking publicly about it. Well-meaning but perhaps misguided.

That’s not a term I’d use, however, for the final example and serial offender, the secretary of state for international development, Priti Patel. The last time I had to respond to her opportunistic media splash it was an unforgivable 1st of January story (there’s a reason why Scotland has two bank holidays at New Year). That time she had pledged to end “fat cat” golden goodbyes.

This time it was pay. I quote directly from The Telegraph: “The ‘crazy’ salaries of Whitehall’s top mandarins should be capped because they are ‘too high’ and ‘out of step with public opinion’, Priti Patel has suggested. Sources close to the international development secretary told The Daily Telegraph she believes the pay packages of around 150 senior civil servants who earn up to £300,000 should be ‘restrained’… Her view is that the PM has rightly capped ministerial pay, to around £60,000, yet director generals last year were paid in the realm of £180,000 and received bonuses –  so at that level they should be subject to restraint.” 

Dear oh dear, where to start? Perhaps with the wonderful display of cowardice where a politician allows “sources close to” them to give quotes, presumably so if it backfires they can deny it. Or with the convenient forgetting of the fact that Patel earned around £135K last year with her combined ministerial and MPs’ salary (excluding expenses).

How about the hypocrisy that sees MPs’ pay set by an independent review body while the Senior Salaries Review Body – which sets pay for senior officials – is constrained by the remit set by government? Perhaps I could focus on how, despite those constraints, the SSRB regularly provides evidence that pay for comparable jobs in the private sector would be multiples of what can be earned in the civil service.

Or I could focus on how Patel, as a secretary of state, appears more interested in manipulating information to spin a story attacking civil servants in her department for cheap political gain than providing genuine political leadership.

The PM may have been bounced into commenting on a meaningless story, Laura Pidcock may be naïve, and Chris Williamson didn’t take a deep breath before pressing send. Priti Patel, however, was deliberate in her use of the dark arts to enhance her own reputation at the expense of others who, twelve months of the year, including during the silly season, are getting on with the serious business of delivering vital public services on behalf of her government. Silly isn’t the word I’d use for that.


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