We can’t rely on ministers to be 'good chaps' – as this whole sordid costings affair shows

Reports of an ethical government have been greatly exaggerated
Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer. Photo: Mark Hawkins/Alamy

By Dave Penman

11 Jun 2024

Mark Twain famously didn’t say "reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated". Though he probably wished he had, because it flows better than the actual quote “The report of my death was an exaggeration”.

I mention this in passing as when I was being interviewed by James O’Brien on LBC last week, I made a quip that “Francis Maude would be spinning in his grave”. It was in reference to the repeated claims by ministers over the previous 24 hours that “independent civil servants” had come up with the costings of Labour’s proposals. It used to drive Maude mad when anyone said the civil service was independent. As he and every minister knows, civil servants are not independent, they serve the government of the day.

O’Brien felt the need, after our call had ended to reassure his audience, that Francis Maude was in fact still alive. Sorry Francis.

The whole opposition costings fiasco that unfolded last week has actually demonstrated this point rather perfectly. Civil servants were instructed by ministers to produce the calculations based on assumptions provided by special advisers. I’ve yet to find anyone in the civil service who thinks this practice is a good idea. Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary, called it “grubby”. Nick Macpherson, the former Treasury permanent secretary, described it as “rubbish in and rubbish out”. It is a nakedly party political wheeze that, let’s be frank, has been used by successive administrations.

What has taken me aback, however, is the way the current government has gone about this, and the wanton disregard they have shown for the impartiality of the civil service.

Firstly, they’ve used these costings and added them to other calculations they themselves have done and totalled them all up in a single document. The prime minister played fast and loose with this point in the first leaders debate, claiming “independent Treasury officials have costed Labour policies and they amount to a £2,000 tax rise for every working family”. Claire Coutinho, the energy secretary, said after the debate that  this is something that has been signed off “by the permanent secretary of the Treasury”. Except, of course, it hadn’t.

Not only was the entire document not made up of opposition costings, but the day before the debate, the permanent secretary to the Treasury, James Bowler, had written to Darren Jones, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury making this clear: “As you will expect, civil servants were not involved in the production of presentation of the Conservative Party's document 'Labour's Tax Rises' or in the calculation of the total figure used.” His extraordinary letter goes on, “I agree that any costings derived from other sources or produced by other organisations should not be presented as having been produced by the civil service.

“I have reminded ministers and advisers that this should be the case.”

I’ve been around a long time and I was quite shocked when that letter appeared. Not only is it unusual for a letter to be written to the opposition in this way, but knowing that it had gone, and the obvious concerns that were being expressed about how the costings were being presented, the prime minister and ministers doubled down on it.

Now, I’ll leave it to others to judge the political wisdom of doing so, knowing there was a letter circulating that debunks it. My concern is that it demonstrates an absolute disregard for the damage this did to the impartiality of the civil service.

They have knowingly misrepresented what are already politically influenced calculations, brigaded them with their own calculations, and tried to present the entirety of those costings as from the “independent civil service”, to give it a veneer of credibility. Ironic, I know, given what they’ve been saying about the civil service for the last five years.

Over the next few days they’ve had to explain that only some of the calculations were done by civil servants and the “independent”  line disappeared until last night, when the prime minister repeated it in an interview with Nick Robinson.

Then just when you thought it was all wrapping fish and chips, up pops the Conservative Party chairman. He has obviously written to the cabinet secretary asking him to confirm that the permanent secretary to the Treasury did not call the prime minister a liar, or whatever other playground language it may have contained, only to get a response that once again clearly sets out what a partial and politically motivated practice the whole process is. Extraordinarily, he published that letter. I’m not sure its quite the defence you think it is Richard.

None of this is an accident. The prime minister isn’t confused about who did what calculation or the constitutional status of the civil service, though I’m not quite as confident about the energy secretary or Tory chairman. It is all a deliberate calculation and complete disregard for the consequences. It’s a scorched earth approach to the impartiality of the civil service, either because they don’t care or don’t think they’ll have to deal with the consequences.

It’s a blatant breach of the ministerial code and the obligations to “uphold the impartiality of the civil service” but then who are we going to complain to – the prime minister is the sole arbiter of the code.

I’ve written to both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, asking them to commit to end the use of civil servants to cost the policies of opposition parties for all future elections.

We can’t rely on ministers to be “good chaps” as this whole sordid affair demonstrates. We need tougher independent regulation and a wholly different approach to standards. It’s also not good enough for Labour to say they’ll just be nicer people in government, they need to demonstrate quickly that their commitments around an ethics commission will be implemented if elected.

Maybe Rishi’s epitaph will read: “Reports of an ethical government have been greatly exaggerated”.

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