Sue Cameron: Theresa May needs to stick up for the civil service in the Brexit tug of war

 As Whitehall comes under attack, Downing Street needs to lead from the front, argues Sue Cameron

By Sue Cameron

11 Jan 2017

Theresa May should spend less time worrying about the antics of Johnny Foreigner than those of Johnny Fruitcake here at home. 

Witness the latest row over Brexit. Whitehall was celebrating the founding 100 years ago of the Cabinet Office which has been at the centre of British government ever since. Suddenly, civil servants found their longstanding values of excellence, probity and impartiality under attack from a bunch of political zealots.

The response of some Brexiteers to the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers as our ambassador to the European Union seemed to challenge the continued existence of a politically neutral Whitehall as never before. They not only castigated Sir Ivan for being gloomy about Brexit but demanded that he be replaced by an ideologue of their own ilk. 

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Sir Ivan’s farewell comments underlined concerns that Theresa May might be ceding too much control of the agenda to a couple of unelected special advisers in Number 10: Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, her joint chiefs of staff. The two act as her gatekeepers and emissaries. It was they, not ministers or officials, who were sent on a secret mission to the US to mend fences with Donald Trump. 

Even before Sir Ivan’s resignation, there was growing concern that Downing Street seemed to be in a dither. Other departments were sending work into Number 10 for approval or discussion but nothing came out again. On the great issue of the day, Brexit, the civil servants crewing the ship of state waited in vain for orders from the bridge, or at least some indication of where they were bound. Instead, ministers disagreed among themselves over possible transitional arrangements and whether Britain should stay in the single market and/or the customs union. 

"In the event, it was the cabinet secretary who swiftly acted to limit the damage"

No wonder that Sir Ivan, in his farewell email to staff, talked of “muddled thinking”. What was unforgiveable was that Sir Ivan, a crucial figure in negotiations with the EU, was being sidelined by Number 10. Nick, now Lord, Macpherson, former top official at the Treasury, tweeted that he couldn’t understand the “wilful and total destruction of EU expertise” with Sir Ivan and other officials with EU experience being kept “out of the loop”. 

The puzzle is that the PM herself had evidently been on good terms with Sir Ivan often sharing her thoughts with him over a gin and tonic. So who was sidelining him? May’s spads, perhaps? Fiona Hill, in particular, is described as “ferocious” in defending their mistress. When May was at the Home Office, “Fi” had to resign after a spat with Michael Gove and reportedly it was she who banned Nicky Morgan from Downing Street after the former education secretary criticised the PM for wearing leather trousers costing £995.

Such loyalty may be commendable in someone working for a cabinet minister but it is different when the boss becomes PM. The best way for a spad to help a PM is to get behind the government not just behind May personally. When a government’s reputation is damaged, particularly its reputation for competence, it is always the PM who is weakened, sometimes fatally. The Economist dubbed the PM Theresa Maybe. It is not a good label. 

In the event, it was the cabinet secretary who swiftly acted to limit the damage, securing the appointment of a traditional diplomatic knight, Sir Tim Barrow, to the European job. In one bound, it seemed he had foiled the forces of darkness, restored Whitehall’s honour and saved Theresa May’s reputation. What made Sir Jeremy’s nominee particularly welcome was that it also sorted out a turf war that had been going on between the FCO and the Treasury, each wanting one of their own to succeed Sir Ivan. Sir Tim has the imprimatur of both Boris Johnson, the present foreign secretary and his predecessor, Philip Hammond, now the chancellor. 

Yet Sir Jeremy still has his work cut out. He needs to find a way of integrating May’s spads more closely with the rest of the civil service team supporting the PM so that they don’t go off on frolics of their own.

This would not be the first time over-powerful spads have had a damaging impact. Think Alastair Campbell; Damian “McPoison” McBride, Steve Hilton. Or Jonathan Powell, a career diplomat who switched to being a political appointee and became Tony Blair’s chief of staff. 

What a delicious irony that today the same Jonathan Powell is a passionate defender of Whitehall’s political neutrality. May should take note. She might also reflect that loyalty and confidence are a two-way street. 

The next time those at the fruitcake end of the Brexit spectrum demand that impartial civil servants be replaced by political acolytes, she must be ready to defend her officials and to do so publicly.

Read the most recent articles written by Sue Cameron - Book review: Where power lies behind the black door of No.10

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