Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood has defended the civil service against claims made by former chancellor Lord Lawson that officials “will do their best to frustrate” the Brexit process.
The head of the civil service issued a statement to BBC Newsnight following its profile aired yesterday of senior civil servant Olly Robbins, the prime minister’s Europe adviser and a key player in Brexit negotiations.
The programme opened with a comment from Lawson: “Brexit is a most radical change of direction for this country. The idea that any bureaucrat could be in favour of radical change is a nonsense.”
But Heywood hit back against criticism of Whitehall’s role in the EU exit process, insisting that the “very best people” had been deployed to make Brexit a success and that “the civil service is at its very best when under pressure”.
His statement said: "The civil service has always prided itself on supporting the elected government of the day in carrying out its mandate. In this case the mandate has come from the British people, has been endorsed overwhelmingly by Parliament and is the driving mission of the current government.
“The civil service is putting enormous effort and many of its very best people into making a success of the project. It is being tested on a daily basis and I am very proud of what we have – so far – delivered. Morale is at record levels, proving once again that the civil service is at its very best when under pressure."
Although it is rare for the cabinet secretary to comment publicly on statements made by politicians, Heywood issued a similar statement in September after former Cabinet Office minister Lord Maude said the civil service had a “bias to inertia” and “suffers from institutional complacency”.
Heywood then said civil servants were “working flat out” to help the government deliver a successful Brexit, and that Francis Maude’s attack was “a wholly inaccurate portrayal”.
Lawson, who served as chancellor under prime minister Margaret Thatcher, told BBC Newsnight that officials had been “aghast” when his government introduced radical changes in economic policy that they thought “would be a disaster”.
But he also said civil servants understand it is their constitutional duty to accept political leadership, and that his economic policy changes were pushed through successfully because there was a “strong Cabinet” at that time.
May has struggled to keep her Cabinet under control since last year’s snap election returned her to office with a minority government, while senior civil servants have reportedly complained of a lack of political direction for Brexit policy.
“The officials will do their best to frustrate this [Brexit] process because it goes against the grain so fundamentally. But they equally realise their constitutional duty to accept the leadership of the politicians, of the elected government,” Lawson added.