Sir Oliver Letwin has spoken out strongly in praise of Whitehall's ability to carry on with important policy work serenely despite the “Brexit elephant” in the room.
The former Cabinet Office minister said that at a time when life in Westminster was “rather surreal”, one of the most surreal things was the “rather comforting way” that behind the scenes civil servants were getting on with their normal work and doing a “magnificent job”.
Letwin, who has represented the West Dorset constituency since 1997, used a column in local newspaper the Bridport News to flag the “little noticed fact” that the UK is “blessed with a civil service capable of continuing to maintain normality in the face of the abnormal”.
The MP, who was minister for government policy for six years under David Cameron and more recently led an investigation into the “land banking” phenomenon among housebuilders for chancellor Philip Hammond, cited recent meetings on health policy as examples.
“Work is continuing on how to tackle the problems caused by anti-depressant drugs, the difficulties of providing adequate social care for the frail elderly, and the need to reduce obesity,” he said.
“I have recently been involved in discussions about all three of these – and have found myself participating actively in these discussions.
“Rather as if one goes to the theatre when one has a toothache and the pain disappears temporarily at the height of the drama, only to return when the curtain comes down, it is actually possible for politicians and civil servants and various assembled experts to discuss important long-term issues such as these in a way that makes one momentarily forget the enormous challenges currently facing the body politic in our country.”
Letwin, who is backing Michael Gove to succeed Theresa May as the next Conservative Party leader, said that all countries went through difficulties at various times in their history and that part of being a successful nation was the ability to deal with crisis in a “resilient manner”.
“We are actually blessed with a civil service capable of continuing to maintain normality in the face of the abnormal,” he said.
“I have often found myself thinking that we undervalue our civil service. We tend to take its propriety and its intelligence for granted, and then to complain about the fact that it isn’t fleeter of foot, or more commercially savvy or things of that sort.
“But there is no basis for thinking that its very considerable merits of decency and probity and fundamentally good intentions are things that can actually be taken for granted.
“There are plenty of countries around the world which would give almost anything to acquire civil service with these characteristics. So we should definitely pause to give some thanks where thanks are actually due.”
Separately, Letwin praised environment secretary Gove’s record as secretary of state at the Department for Education, the Ministry of Justice and current ministry the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
He said ex-journalist Gove was an “able administrator” who had “achieved great things for education, justice and the environment”.
Nominations for the race to succeed Thersea May as Tory leader close at 5pm this afternoon.