‘If no deal is the settled will of government, the country needs a civil service that will deliver it’ – unions condemn calls for Whitehall Brexit rebellion

Former civil service head calls on officials to consider if “stewardship of the country” should trump service to government of the day

Photo: PA

By Richard Johnstone

29 Aug 2019

Unions have criticised comments by former civil service chief Lord Bob Kerslake that officials should consider whether to implement the policies of the government after prime minister Boris Johnson’s controversial move to prorogue parliament.

Kerslake's comments came amid the fallout from the unexpected decision from prime minister Boris Johnson to announce that parliament would be “prorogued” from 9 September until 14 October, when the monarch will deliver a Queen’s Speech setting out the government’s legislative plans.

The move has been criticised by opponents of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October as it would reduce the time available for MPs to pass any new laws aimed at stopping the UK from leaving the bloc without an agreement.


Following the decision, Kerslake – who was civil service head from 2011 to 2014 – told the Guardian newspaper: “We are reaching the point where the civil service must consider putting its stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day.”

On the BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, Kerslake, who has also advised the Labour Party on implementing its manifesto polices, said the role of the civil service is to service the government of the day, “but what we are experiencing now is quite unprecedented”.

He added: “What happened yesterday with the decision by the prime minister was a gross abuse of power, to suggest otherwise is an insult to people’s intelligence, and we have indications now, albeit informal, that the government is prepared to ignore a vote of no confidence and potentially even ignore legislation. I think that extraordinary situation that we’ve now reached raises big constitutional questions.”

Asked about his comments to the Guardian, he said: “Clearly you would want to be in a situation where you serve the government and the government acts in a way that is in the interest of the country, that has got to be the right way forward. But I ask myself what I would do in this situation, and I would say I would resign. I think it is unacceptable behaviour that is going on at the moment.”

He said the proroguing decision was “certainly bad government,” although it would be for courts would decide if the advice to do so was legal.

“It is absolutely the case that we [the civil service] should be impartial and service the government of the day, but we are at a very very unprecedented time, where the future of the county is at stake. I think that does raise very deep questions about the role that the civil service has to play."

However, responding to the comments by Kerslake, Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA trade union representing senior civil servants, said that the impartiality of the civil service “always matters,not only when it suits your own political views”.

He added: “The current crisis is one that has been created in parliament by its inability to make a decision. Dragging the civil service into a constitutional fight, when it’s actually a political one, only serves to undermine the service over the longer term.

“Ministers are free to ignore civil service advice, they carry the can for their political judgements. Any civil servant who feels their own principles or views are incompatible with the current government is free to leave the civil service, but if they stay they don’t get to choose which bit they like and which they don’t.”

He said that arguments that Brexit is different to other policy areas was “nonsensical”, although it was a huge challenge for the government, parliament and the country.

“Those who claim that this is fundamentally against the interests of the country said the same about austerity and its consequences,” he said. “Are they suggesting the civil service should have refused to implement the government’s economic programme?

“The country needs a strong, impartial and professional civil service like never before. It needs a civil service that will provide the robust advice on the consequences of no-deal. It needs a civil service that will assess those risks and advise ministers how to mitigate them as far as possible. But it also needs a civil service that will deliver no-deal – if that is the settled will of government – however uncomfortable that may be to some.”

Another union source described the comments as “pretty unhelpful from Sir Bob”.

Mike Clancy, Prospect general secretary, added that "at a time when politicians from all sides are lining up to attack civil servants and accuse them of political bias, these comments from Bob Kerslake are surprising".

He added: “Civil servants have a duty to advise government without fear or favour and to enact government policy within the confines of the law and the constitution.

“Prospect is the first to criticise the government’s handling of Brexit and its flagrant disregard for evidence and for democratic debate. We have also asked all political parties to make commitments to how they treat civil servants.

“But the people who benefit from encouraging notions of civil service plots are those who want to undermine and delegitimise the very people who have kept this country running in recent times and who we will rely on more than ever in the fraught months ahead.”

However PCS said the five-week suspension of parliament was a “worrying development for democracy”.

General secretary Mark Serwotka said: "This is an outrageous undemocratic act by a prime minister elected by a tiny number of unrepresentative Tory party members. He knows he has no mandate to push through a No Deal Brexit and is taking this action to improve his chances of forcing it through. What we need is a general election where the people can give their verdict on Brexit, this dreadful government and a decade of austerity.”

Also yesterday, the former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell took to Twitter to set out his view that the Queen could not have rejected the request by Johnson’s government to suspend parliament.

“To clarify, the Queen had no option but to accept the PM’s request on prorogation but making such a political request which is now being legally challenged hardly helps keeping her above politics,” he said.


To clarify, the Queen had no option but to accept the PM’s request on Prorogation but making such a political request which is now being legally challenged hardly helps keeping her above politics.

— Gus O'Donnell (@Gus_ODonnell) August 29, 2019

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