They say the secret to comedy is timing. If so, then Jonathan Slater, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, has a career in standup ahead of him. His intervention on the Today programme on Monday, as hundreds of schools and thousands of parents were waking up to the scale of the RAAC crisis, sent a shockwave through government.
Almost all ministers or prime ministers will have to deal with a crisis which they feel is not of their making – Truss and Kwarteng being the obvious exceptions. Bubbly concrete poured in the 70s can hardly be blamed on a secretary of state only appointed last October. How can a prime minister who only entered parliament in 2015 be held responsible? And the unfortunate timing of the advice to schools? That was because of the changing technical advice following a series of failures in the concrete. Again, not-me-guv was the tone.
Slater’s intervention was to explain that his former department was well aware of the scale of the problem with RAAC, and that they had set out a bid to refurbish and replace schools. Their analysis showed this was a critical risk to life. Concrete blocks had already started falling from school roofs and there was no way to tell when or if another incident would happen. The only certainty was that these schools were not built to last and therefore, if not replaced, they would fail at some point. Their initial bid was for 300 to 400 schools to be replaced each year, but the funding was only agreed by the Treasury for 100. Then, in the 2021 spending round, this was reduced to 50 a year. Enter Sunak, the then-chancellor, stage right.
There is no doubt that Slater’s intervention was a political bombshell. It highlighted the consequences of more than a decade of budget cuts by successive Conservative governments and placed the current prime minister squarely at the heart of those decisions.
Cue the howls of outrage that a former mandarin had dared to speak. It fed the narrative that has been brewing for some time, that the civil service is in open revolt. Activist civil servants bringing down Raab, opposing the Rwanda policy and, of course, seeing off Johnson. He, the argument goes, was undone by the intervention of Simon McDonald, former Foreign Office permanent secretary, and then stitched up by Sue Gray who left to work for the Labour Party, thereby proving the point.
The Sun’s leader column, which read like a Howler telegram from Harry Potter, also, of course, claimed this was more evidence of a Remainer plot.
For all the pearl-clutching from individuals and publications that routinely trash the civil service knowing it can’t answer back, it does raise a legitimate question. Should former senior civil servants ever make a public intervention revealing details from their time in government?
These interventions are rare. Most ex-perm secs disappear into the ether. They are, by and large, as welcoming of publicity as a vampire is of the breaking dawn. I have tried and failed to persuade a number to intervene – not in the political crisis of the day, but to give balance to debates on issues like civil service reform. Some do, but it is rare. They all know what a difficult job it is, for ministers and civil servants. They know that to govern is to choose and that often there are a plethora of reasons why a decision was taken, or a mistake made. They don’t want to make their successor’s job more difficult.
The two most recent and significant interventions are those of Slater and McDonald. The latter’s revelation that the then prime minister was warned about the MP Chris Pincher’s conduct, despite denying this, was instrumental in Johnson’s downfall. It was, for many, the last straw. Whilst Johnson loyalists will claim it was a partisan move, history I think will judge differently, as I would argue it will with Slater.
In McDonald’s case, this was a crucial issue of the integrity of the prime minister, on which the former perm sec had a unique perspective. In Slater’s case, he brought to the public’s attention facts that were already largely in the public domain, but which he uniquely could bring clarity to. Both were over issues of significant public interest.
Slater, McDonald and every perm sec past and present will have hundreds of stories that could be used to undermine government or ministers. It is the same for every administration. That they do not share them, despite at times the extreme provocation from ministers who routinely trash their civil servants in the press, demonstrates that in the main, the system works.
My guess is that future interventions of this nature will be similarly rare. It must be the case though, that if we could find a way to more routinely tap into the unique experience of these public servants, without undermining the trust between ministers and officials that is necessary for government to work effectively, then we would all be better off for it.
Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union