Prime minister Boris Johnson has been warned that he risks causing “serious damage to the civil service” after it was reported at the weekend that Downing Street has a “hit list” of permanent secretaries it would like to replace.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, Downing Street is keen to replace Home Office perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam, Treasury chief Sir Tom Scholar, and Foreign Office head Sir Simon McDonald.
According to the paper, Scholar is viewed by No.10 as being "offside completely on Brexit" and as having contributed to the Treasury having “dug their heels in” on EU exit preparations before Johnson became prime minister.
“Their view on the economy is now very different to the view in Downing Street ... I can’t see how he’s going to carry on.”
Johnson and McDonald worked together when Johnson was secretary of state in the Foreign Office from 2016 to 2018, with one source telling the paper that Johnson wants to replace McDonald as he “had a hellish time in the Foreign Office”, while it has been reported that home secretary Priti Patel tried to get permanent secretary Rutnam moved from the job amid concerns over her treatment of staff.
Responding to the report, FDA assistant general secretary Amy Leversidge said anonymous briefings against senior civil servants “do no one any favours and, ultimately, just act to erode public trust in government”.
She highlighted that the prime minister is the also minister for the civil service, so it was his responsibility "to rein in those within his party from attacking hard working public servants, who they know full well are unable to publicly answer back”.
She added: “Boris Johnson must show leadership and defend his civil servants, or else he risks doing serious, long-term damage to the UK civil service.
“What kind of message does this send to those currently working or pursuing a career in public service? If the government truly wants to deliver its policy priorities, this is not the way to go about it.”
McDonald’s tenure as FCO perm sec is due to finish at the end of August, and the Telegraph reported he “will be asked to find a new role when his term finishes”.
Scholar’s term is not due to end until June 2021, while Rutnam will be in post until April 2022.
The report comes as Patel has called for a leak inquiry over what her allies called 'hostile' briefings against her by Home Office officials.
The Times said she had asked Helen MacNamara, director of propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office, to conduct a leak inquiry to establish who is briefing against her, but added that sources at the department said no such request had been received.
It was also reported in the Sunday Times that intelligence officers had reduced the amount of sensitive information they passed to her because they “do not trust” her, and regularly “roll their eyes” at her interventions in meetings.
Patel has also been accused of creating an "atmosphere of fear" in the Home Office, claims she has strenuously denied.
A spokesperson for the home secretary said she and Sir Philip were "deeply concerned about the number of false allegations appearing in the media".
"They are focused on delivering on the Home Office's hugely important agenda, which includes creating an immigration system that works for the UK, putting more police on the streets and keeping the public safe from terrorism," the spokesperson added.
An ally of Patel told The Times: “Priti is absolutely livid. The blob is trying to kill her. She’s determined to get to the bottom of it.”
The security services also moved to quash the allegations against Patel, with a source responding: “Reports suggesting that the home secretary and MI5 do not have a strong working relationship are simply untrue.
“The home secretary is briefed daily on intelligence matters in exactly the same way as any previous postholder. No information is being withheld.
“Any report suggesting otherwise is simply wrong and does not serve the public interest.”