Opinion: Dr Jon Davis: The role of cabinet secretary is now a public one

“Not until I came to Whitehall did I learn that the country was run by two men, neither of whom I had ever heard of”, said Lord Victor Rothschild of his 1970 meeting with Sir Burke Trend and Sir William Armstrong, secretary to the cabinet and head of the home civil service respectively. But increasingly lurid attention from The Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Daily Mail, along with their Sunday siblings, is making sure that latter day grandees will have no such ignorance as to the name and power of the cabinet secretary since January this year, Sir Jeremy Heywood.

By Civil Service World

01 Nov 2012

The accusations began before he was appointed, with stories suggesting his brief sojourn with Morgan Stanley made him culpable for the difficulties of care home provider Southern Cross. Similar suspicions reappeared recently over the failed merger of BAE and EADS. (It is intriguing to note that many of the voices unhappy with Heywood’s banking past are also those who bemoan civil servants’ lack of real world experience.)

Other rumours suggest that Sir Jeremy has doubts over the effective delivery of Universal Credit, and that he swiftly steps on any woolly scepticism over Europe. Perhaps the biggest flashpoint was his supposed victory in the Number 10 turf war, when the Prime Minister’s trusted strategy supremo Steve Hilton – frustrated by a Whitehall machine unresponsive to his radicalism – left for the USA.

Much of the attention Heywood attracts can be explained by growing Conservative anger over the Lib Dems’ power of veto over policies, leading to unpalatable compromises overseen by the masterly, pragmatic cabinet secretary. The received wisdom in Tory circles is now that Heywood is too powerful vis-a-vis a Downing Street bereft of right-wing political input. But what is lost on many of Heywood’s critics is that this is so because David Cameron wills it.

Cameron’s clear preference is for a Mount Olympian approach when at all possible: a return to an age when Conservative governments looked to the civil service for intellectual horsepower. As long as the cabinet secretary enjoys great trust from the PM, he will continue to be a very powerful figure indeed.

The cabinet secretary’s was not always such a public role, and it was far from inevitable that it should become one. There have only been eleven secretaries to the cabinet since its creation in the dark days of December 1916. The first, Sir Maurice Hankey, lasted 20 years. Not for nothing was a biography of him called Man of Secrets. He and almost all his successors until the end of the 20th century were the right-hand men of prime ministers of both hues: the silky, Machiavellian principal advisers on all areas of governance, from finance to intelligence, efficiency to managing cabinet.

But this model changed in 1997. Tony Blair got through four cabinet secretaries during his decade, with the now Lord Butler of Brockwell retiring after a year, Lord Wilson of Dinton occupying the post between 1998 and 2002, and Lord Turnbull serving three years before Lord O’Donnell took over in 2005. None were used in the traditional manner by the new prime minister. A minor squall took place in the days after the 1997 election, when an attempt to give special adviser Jonathan Powell the title principal private secretary was defeated, leaving him as ‘chief of staff’ – but acting nonetheless as Blair’s principal adviser.

This resulted in a smaller role for the cabinet secretary until Gordon Brown’s accession, which saw O’Donnell’s role return to something akin to pre-Blair. O’Donnell himself had a more public role, uncontroversial and almost evangelical about the benefits of a traditional civil service. By dropping GoD’s roles as head of the home civil service and permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office – obviously with the PM’s agreement – Heywood was able to make best use of his expertise as the ultimate back room boy.

In this role, Heywood is being criticised for being too good (at a time when the cry is that the civil service is ineffective); for keeping the show on the road under very trying circumstances; for fulfilling his billing within the civil service as joining the handful of Great Men of Whitehall lore. But all this masks a greater story: the politicisation of the mandarinate. Lord Adonis spoke recently at the Mile End Group of the arguments being “finely balanced between having an American system where the elected government of the day... can determine the senior posts in the public service and appoints people who actually agree with what it’s wanting to do”.

Where Blair once led with Powell, the top level of Labour is now actively contemplating a real break with the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement of 1870. These Tory attacks on Sir Jeremy may come to be seen as the beginning of the end for the impartial civil service. Be careful what you wish for.

Dr Jon Davis is director of the Mile End Groupat Queen Mary, University of London.

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