Dave Penman reviews civil service chiefs’ morning of herding the Alpacas

There’s some Brexit semantic skirmishes as the cabinet secretary and the civil service chief exec appear before PACAC. Dave Penman watches it so you don’t have to

Photo: Parliament TV

By Dave Penman

17 Jan 2019

Over to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (Alpacas) where Sir Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary, and John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service, were giving evidence.

They’re very different characters. Manzoni spent most of his career in the private sector. He’s a smooth operator with a hint of 80s used car salesman — the Swiss Toni of the civil service, in the nicest possible way. Mark has a different background. He’s been a diplomat in some of the most conflict-ridden areas of the globe as well as a weapons inspector in Iraq and NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan. Bit of a bulldog, again in the nicest possible way. Polite, but you don’t doubt the steel behind it.  

The opening exchanges were classic Alpaca territory. They talked leadership academies, immersive case studies and lamented the loss of the National School of Government. This is a point everyone seemed to agree on but, almost as if it’s too embarrassing to simply bring it back, they’re concocting a series of arrangements that certainly aren’t the National School of Government but do exactly what the National School of Government did.


Preliminaries over, they got down to the issue that really gets their collective juices flowing. The head Alpaca Brexit Bernie is (as you’ll have guessed) an arch Brexiteer, so this was really an early Christmas present for him.

Principally, he wanted to know about no deal planning. This is where it started to get tetchy. Brexit Bernie’s central theme was that everyone will play ball post-Brexit and we should all talk more positively about it. Swiss and Bulldog tried to explain that contingency planning meant anticipating the worst-case scenario as well. They’re a bit damned if they do, damned if they don’t. The government has been criticised for not planning for no deal, but when it does and includes the worst-case scenarios it’s all “project fear” analogies.

Then, as is famously the case with Alpacas, they got distracted over some wording. Swiss Toni kept using the term “disorderly Brexit” for no deal and Alpaca David Jones was unhappy with this. The civil service has had two years to plan for this, how can it be disorderly? He was worried this was an expression that had currency in the civil service, as if this was actually the most important point.

It was at this point that Bulldog intervened and, I have to say, gave the best description so far of the challenge facing the civil service. “Of course, we make contingency plans,” he said “but… we don’t have complete control over the circumstances that would pertain in the event of leaving without a deal on 29 March. There are things that no government can control.”

Importantly, he added: “We are preparing as best we can. I think we are in the best possible shape we can be. But it is not possible to run two entirely parallel policies for a transition moment, particularly when those policies and the operational preparations would be in tension with each other as you go along.”

This is a point often lost on those who don’t understand the complexity of actually running government.

Just as he finished, Swiss Toni added that the operational preparations also “need two parties to be party to it. So, it might be inconvenient, but it is less orderly.”

Boom, you would have thought. But that would suggest Alpaca Jones was interested in the realities of the situation rather than simply reinforcing his predetermined position. “I think that reassurance is more important than the use of expressions that don’t, in fact, reassure people” he said… incredibly.

They moved on, kind of. Brexit Bernie went down a rabbit hole on whether the prime minister signing the agreement with the EU would in fact render futile any vote in parliament — yes, really. Swiss Toni appeared to confirm that somewhere around 20,000 civil servants would be needed in a no deal scenario, remarkably close to the figure that Deloitte consultant got trashed for two years ago.

Then Bulldog came into his own as discussion turned to how “leaky” Cabinet was and what could be done to identify leakers. “We are looking at taking a different approach to them,” he said ominously. He didn’t want to reveal too much about his methods but he was clear about the outcomes. “I hope we will have a chilling effect as we gradually manage to demonstrate that we are on to this. But we need to be able to identify some people responsible for it and take action against them in order to be really sure that others understand the seriousness of it,” he said rubbing his hands. Chilling indeed. You have been warned.

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