Election result: Gus O’Donnell warns civil service’s job just got a lot harder

Former cabinet secretary says “wheeler-dealer” nature of minority government is likely to sideline Whitehall expertise, and predicts shelving of some Brexit groundwork 


By Jim Dunton

09 Jun 2017

Theresa May’s weakened minority government will add a new layer of challenge to an under-pressure Whitehall trying to deal with the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, former cabinet secretary and civil service head Lord Gus O’Donnell has said.

Lord O’Donnell, who oversaw the creation of Conservative-LibDem coalition in 2010, said the challenges facing the current civil service leadership in the wake of yesterday’s general election were far tougher than those of 2010. 


The crossbench peer added that the practicalities of prime minister Theresa May’s decision to govern with the backup of the 10 seats held by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party would shift the focus of policymaking and legislation into backroom “wheeler dealing”.

O’Donnell added that as well as circumventing Whitehall’s domestic policy role, the new makeup of parliament was likely to require some backtracking on the civil service’s work on developing the UK’s approach to Brexit.

He said that the issue-by-issue practicalities of minority government meant that the Conservatives would have to try and introduce as little legislation as possible to minimise the potential for defeat in the division lobbies.

“Minority government is a lot more complicated than coalition,” he said.

“Coalition is fundamentally more stable because you’ve got a programme.

“What happened in the 70s is that there were a lot of deals done in smoke-filled rooms in the House of Commons that bypassed the civil service.”

O’Donnell said that the first test of the new “issue-by-issue” approach that the government would be forced to adopt was likely to involve revising May’s Brexit stance to accommodate the demands of the DUP and new Conservative MPs in Scotland.

He added that EU's Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, would not be interested in commencing negotiations with May’s government until the UK’s new stance had been sorted out, but that the Article 50 deadlines would not necessarily be extended as a result.

O’Donnell said he expected current cabinet secretary and civil service head Sir Jeremy Heywood and Cabinet Office perm sec John Manzoni would be “asking themselves what they did to deserve this”.

“They’re going to be thinking: ‘I thought Brexit was a tough challenge and now I have to deal with a minority administration’, which are much more unstable than a coalition,” he said.

O’Donnell said that while the Fixed Term Parliaments Act introduced by the coalition was still in effect, there was no reason to imagine that the Conservatives would have to call an early rerun of yesterday’s vote.

But he observed that it was “quite possible” that the act’s vote-of-no-confidence route to triggering a general election would be invoked at some point during the parliament.

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