The Labour Party leadership has called on cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill to instigate an independent inquiry into a potential breach of civil service neutrality after reports some officials discussed whether Jeremy Corbyn was “too frail” to be prime minister.
Corbyn called for an independent inquiry on Saturday after The Times reported that senior civil servants had discussed concerns about his health at a meeting last month.
One unamed official was said to have suggested Corbyn may have to stand down as Labour leader as he was not “physically or mentally” up to the job, adding "There's growing concern that he's too frail and is losing his memory. He's not in charge of his own party", while another reportedly said he was “not functioning on all cylinders”.
Corbyn said the idea that officials had briefed against an elected politician and prospective government “should be very concerning to all of us”.
“The civil service has to be independent; has to be non-political and has to be non-judgmental of the politicians they have a duty to serve,” he said.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett yesterday said he has written to Sedwill demanding an independent investigation into what he called a “totally unwarranted and indeed unconstitutional political intervention with disturbing implications for our democratic system”.
In his letter, Trickett described the Times report as a “credible account of conversations at a senior level in the civil service” and warranted an investigation.
“The premise of these conversations is the allegation that Mr Corbyn’s health is poor. This is manifestly untrue,” he wrote.
“Discussion of these matters, based on false assumptions, should not be taking place. Worse, it is without precedent in my experience that any high-level discussion about senior politicians, let alone the leader of the Opposition, should be shared with a newspaper.”
Trickett said the probe must be independent of the Cabinet Office “in order to avoid any real or apparent conflicts of interest”.
He also requested a meeting with Sedwill to discuss the leak. “I hope you will be able to give clear assurances that the basic principles of British public life will not be undermined.”
Sedwill is set to write to Corbyn in response, with Downing Street confirming on Monday that he would be responding to Corbyn's letter "shortly".
The prime minister’s spokesperson said it would be "unacceptable" for officials to make such comments. "Impartiality is one of the fundamental values of the civil service and underpins its ability to effectively serve the Government of the day," they said.
"It would clearly be inappropriate and unacceptable for comments of this sort to have been made or briefed to the press. The cabinet secretary will be writing to the leader of the opposition shortly."
FDA general secretary Dave Penman said The Times had reported “tittle-tattle over coffee” as if it was the settled view of the service, but such an accusation was “frankly insulting to committed public servants” who respect civil service impartiality.
It was “shabby stuff” to suggest otherwise, he said on Twitter. “I know senior civil servants who think Corbyn is the bee's knees, so what? Dragging in a few civil servants to a Corbyn hatchet job to give it legitimacy only serves to further undermine the impartiality of the service.
“It’s not a civil service view either way. The Times using it this way in a splash is clearly intended to give that impression and it only serves to undermine the impartiality of the civil service.”