'A lot of wasted energy': Ex-top civil servants detail turmoil at heart of Johnson's No.10

Officials “sought Buckingham Palace’s support” to bring No.10 into line, documentary claims
Photo: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Stock Photo

By Jim Dunton

19 Sep 2023

Former Whitehall leaders have spoken of the toxic relationship between the civil service and No.10 in the months following Boris Johnson’s landslide general-election victory in 2019.

First-hand accounts from former Foreign Office permanent secretary Lord Simon McDonald and former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara feature prominently in BBC Two documentary State of Chaos.

Last night’s episode of the three-part series looked at the months following 2019’s general election, which left Johnson with an 80-seat majority, strengthening his position and that of chief adviser Dominic Cummings. However, the pair’s plans for change were quickly blown off course by the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.

McDonald told the documentary that everybody knew Cummings was “key in the operation” but nobody knew the bounds of the Vote Leave mastermind’s power or the precise nature of his relationship with Johnson.

“It was very clear from very early on that Dominic Cummings wanted to break things to try something completely new. It was destabilising,” McDonald said.

“I worked for the Foreign Office for 38 years. I was a company man. I ended up as the permanent secretary. So even though I could see absolutely the imperfections in the system, I thought the system was basically a good one. And having the people at the top basically disagree with that was new and disagreeable for me personally.”

McDonald said “everybody knew” about clashes between Cummings and then-cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill – now Lord Sedwill.

“The reverberations were clear. That Mark Sedwill was defending the system which Dom Cummings was trying to deconstruct,” he said. “So its not a surprise that they came – I was going to say came to blows, but there was never anything physical. But they disagreed energetically with each other.”

He added: “When Mark told me about the conversations later, they sounded pretty punchy – in the sense of 'out there' rather than physical.”

Sedwill resigned as cab sec and national security adviser in June 2020, while the nation was still battling the first wave of Covid. Simon Case replaced him as cab sec in September.

McDonald added that the removal from office of senior civil servants under the Johnson and Cummings regime was “different from anything that went before”. McDonald was one of those who left office at the time.

Former chancellor Sajid Javid told the documentary that Cummings had exerted power on the same level as Johnson in No.10.

“At best it was like having two prime ministers, and sometimes they agreed and sometimes they didn’t. At worst it was like one prime minister – it just wasn’t the elected one,” he said.

Javid quit as chancellor in early 2020 after being told he would have to sack his team of six special advisers and replace them with a team picked by Cummings if he wanted to stay in post.

Destabilising impact

MacNamara, who left the civil service in February 2021, said relations between No.10 and the civil service had become increasingly toxic in April, May and June of 2020.

“I genuinely don’t think that either the prime minister or any of his really close advisers understood the symbolic impact of the cabinet secretary leaving his job,” she said.

“The whole of the civil service system is reliant on somebody at the top being able to hold a line.

And if your boss’s boss’s boss, or your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss is no longer there to protect you, that can feel – at a time which was very destabilising anyway – even more destabilising.”

MacNamara said there had been “a lot of wasted energy” in government in April, May and June of 2020, when she said internal fights had been a distraction at a time when officials and No.10 ought to have been working well together.

“What people probably never understood was how testy and toxic and unpleasant it got as a place to work during those periods,” she said. “And the sense from the political team that they thought the civil service wasn’t really up to much.”

MacNamara said she had agreed with some of Cummings’ ideas on reforming government, but not his methods of enacting change.

Officials sought help from Buckingham Palace

The documentary,  presented by former BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, suggested sources had reported some senior officials took the “extraordinary step” of appealing to Buckingham Palace for assistance in 2020 in the face of what was perceived as No.10’s “contempt for rules”.

MacNamara appeared to confirm such conversations had taken place, but declined to comment further.

“I can’t talk about the conversation with the Palace,” she said. “I’ll get into trouble.”

Asked for her concerns about government at the time, MacNamara said there had been a feeling that there was an existential crisis, particularly after the PM was hospitalised with Covid in April 2020.

“There were definitely times after the prime minister came back from his illness when the perception among the political team in No.10 about the failings of the system and the failings of the civil service and the failings of different institutions were so extreme,” she said. “The way that they were articulating that in absolutely 'kind of smash it all up, shut it all down, start again' [ways]... We were systematically in real trouble.”

Johnson remained in intensive care at risk of death for several days.

MacNamara told the documentary that there had been no guidance for officials on how to deal with a such a situation, so she felt compelled to write some and to suggest that it had existed previously.

“There is not a manual for this,” she said. “I was extremely worried about the impact it would have if he was gone. And the shock it would be for the country. And how on earth we were going to manage if the worst happened. You have to just reassure people that it’s going to be OK and that there is a plan.

“One of the things that I’d done is ‘what happens if the prime minister’s really ill?’. I remember going back to my office and turning those rough notes into something that looked like maybe a document that had been around for a much longer period of time … just as an agenda for discussion. Just to try to create the illusion that we had a list.”

Read the most recent articles written by Jim Dunton - Never mind the pollacks: ministerial direction signed for fishing scheme

Share this page