Gus O’Donnell: ‘It’s very difficult to run a government without ministers’

Former cabinet secretary says civil service can manage “for a few weeks” without political leadership
Gus O'Donnell. Photo: Alliance for Useful Evidence

By Jim Dunton

07 Jul 2022

Former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell has spoken of his belief that the civil service can keep the nation functioning through the current political turmoil, but said there is no substitute for ministerial direction.

As the tidal wave of resignations among Boris Johnson’s team continues – including education secretary Michelle Donelan,  who was only appointed yesterday – O’Donnell said the civil service could continue without a full complement of political leaders for a matter of weeks.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the former top civil servant to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron said the current turmoil in Downing Street was “pushing our constitutional boundaries farther than we probably should”.

However he expressed faith in officials’ ability to work around the political chaos stemming from the collapse in Conservative Party support for Johnson and the near 50% departure of ministers.

“It’s very difficult to run a government without ministers, and we’re losing them by the minute,” he said. 

“Our system requires civil servants to advise ministers and ministers to decide. And if there’s no-one to decide, that can’t go on too long.

“We can manage this for a while, for a few days maybe even a few weeks but it’s absolutely not a good place to be.”

In the hours since O’Donnell’s interview, Downing Street sources have suggested that Johnson is poised to formally resign as Conservative Party leader and plans to stay on as prime minister in a “caretaker” capacity  until the party picks a successor.

In his interview, O’Donnell said Johnson could best assist the nation by aiding the transition to a new prime minister and making sure there was a functioning government during the process.

Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, said the rules for caretaker prime ministers were similar to those in place during an election campaign.

“You must deal with urgent business, crises. We must have a functioning government,” she said. “But you are expected to show discretion about business of a long-term character.”

Haddon said the cabinet manual set out further details relating to major policy decisions and appointments to public bodies. But she stressed that having a “caretaker” prime minister in place did not stop all business of government.

“It is about showing responsibility and ensuring you have support for those actions,” Haddon said.

“The civil service will respect this anyway and start sifting the urgent from the routine.

“That will already have started to happen as some departments have been filleted of ministers. But they will also be already working out what is urgent in next few months.”

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