'Get on with the job,' perm secs tell civil servants amid political upheaval

"This is NOT like a pre-election period where there are specific rules about what the government can do" says BEIS chief
The message for most staff is “keep calm and carry on”, Munby said. Photo: Jamie/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Civil servants have been told to expect "close to business as usual" as a leadership contest to replace outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson unfolds – but perm secs have warned some work will be halted.

In an email to staff this morning, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy permanent secretary Sarah Munby wrote: “This is close to ‘business as usual’ although the cabinet secretary has passed on cabinet’s steer that rather than initiating new policy or revisiting previously agreed positions, the government will focus on delivering the agenda it has already collectively agreed.”

“We don’t expect radical new policy to be introduced unless required, but we do expect to continue to get on with the business of government”, she said in the wake of Boris Johnson’s resignation speech yesterday.

“I want to be clear this is NOT like a pre-election period where there are specific rules about what the government can do,” she added.

Munby’s message echoed those being given to civil servants by perm secs and ministers across government, who are seeking to reassure their staff and instruct them on how to proceed as political upheaval continues.

Environment secretary George Eustice has told staff to “roll up [their] sleeves and keep going”, while newly installed levelling-up secretary Greg Clark made it clear he considers his role to be to “hold the fort” until a new Conservative leader is selected, CSW understands.

And Cabinet Office boss Alex Chisholm and No.10 perm sec Samantha Jones yesterday told staff the “work of government will continue”.

“Ministers will continue to exercise their responsibilities and carry out their usual activities, and civil servants will also act accordingly. The civil service serves the government of the day and we have a responsibility to ensure that the government continues to run smoothly,” they said in an email explaining that officials should act as they did following the departures of David Cameron in 2016 and Theresa May in 2019.

A Conservative Party leadership contest will kick off soon to find Johnson’s replacement as prime minister. Some in the party are seeking to remove him as PM before a replacement is found, and the Labour Party has threatened a no-confidence vote to remove him.

“Please be responsive, flexible and, where necessary, patient during this period as colleagues in private offices work through how best to proceed,” Chisholm and Jones added.

In her message to BEIS staff this morning, Munby did warn that while the message for most staff is “keep calm and carry on”, there may be “a small number of areas of work where something very new is halted for now”.

“Ministerial offices can help on specifics (and if you are without a junior minister, please work through their office as usual and they will escalate to SoS as required),” she said.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng remained in place during a deluge of resignations this week that ultimately toppled the prime minister, but business minister Lee Rowley and science minister George Freeman quit, along with two PPSs.

Munby also said departmental leadership would keep staff updated “as we gain further clarity on the impact around programmes such as Civil Service 2025 as we navigate this period”.

Little is known so far about how Johnson’s departure will affect the programme to return the civil service headcount to the level it was before Brexit in 2016.

Munby added: “The continuity of the civil service and our ability to get on with the job is a huge asset in twisty turvy times like these – or at least that’s what I have been reminding myself when occasionally distracted this week by the latest turmoil!”

Eustice gave a similar message to Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials on an all-staff call yesterday.

Speaking alongside Defra perm sec Tamara Finkelstein, Eustice told staff that the Conservative government was still in place and would continue to implement its manifesto as the leadership contest unfolds. 

The environment secretary said the department’s pay settlement and job cuts needed to be dealt with in “an orderly and sensible way that causes as little disruption as possible”, one insider told CSW. He also said he did not want people to have to reapply for their own jobs.

And one official at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said they had been told “very little is changing” for the time being, and that the new secretary of state Greg Clark had made it clear he considers his role to be to “hold the fort” until a new Conservative leader is selected.

“So the approach decided at the top of the department is to continue with the work that has already been cleared but not to do anything new,” they said.

‘Avoid any public political commentary’

Chisholm and Jones took the opportunity to remind their staff of the need to remain politically impartial amid the upheaval unfolding in government.

Top brass at the Cabinet Office and No.10 said it was important officials “continue to observe the core civil service values, and ensure in particular that we preserve our political impartiality and that public resources are not used to support leadership campaigns” in an all-staff email yesterday.

“It is important we avoid any public political commentary and are cautious about our social media activity,” Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm and No.10 perm sec Samantha Jones wrote.

“If you are in any doubt about making any public comment about business matters, please do speak to colleagues in the press office,” the memo added.

The message welcomed two ministers to the department: chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Kit Malthouse and Andrew Stephenson, minister without portfolio. Malthouse succeeds Steve Barclay, who became health secretary shortly after Sajid Javid became the first cabinet minister to resign this week.

The Cabinet Office is one of only a handful of departments that did not lose any ministers in the wave of departures, which were sparked by a row over the government’s handling of sexual misconduct claims against former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher.

The message also thanked staff for their work, saying: “We have dealt with unprecedented challenges and changes, working at the centre of government, and you have shown outstanding commitment and skill.

“In this new context, we are confident that you will all respond professionally and efficiently as we continue to focus on delivery.”

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