A former special adviser has warned Liz Truss not to pick a “fight” with HM Treasury, following the abrupt sacking of its permanent secretary Sir Tom Scholar.
Salma Shah, who was a spad for Sajid Javid when he was home secretary from 2018 to 2019, said the removal of Scholar from the top Treasury job earlier this month was “unsurprising” given widespread animosity towards the exchequer, but was nevertheless “wrong”.
Writing for the Independent, Shah said that while “Treasury orthodoxy” – a long-held bugbear of the new prime minister – is “undeniably frustrating” and should be challenged.
“If you’re a minister or a civil servant in any other government department you have felt the painful sting of His Majesty’s Treasury curtailing your vision with its miserly worship of the scorecard and its twice-annual bean-counting exercise, otherwise known as the Budget... The smug condescension you get when the Treasury pours cold water over your plans and the audacity of making you look at the numbers underpinning them can be a scarring experience,” Shah wrote.
However, she said an adversarial approach would not help the government meet its goals.
“Decapitating the department won’t change the culture. Civil servants multiply like gremlins – more will take the place of the ones you’ve axed. It’s like fighting Game of Thrones’ white walkers – they just keep coming! It’s better to have an argument than a fight and get to a good decision, rather than make a statement with what, from the outside, can be seen as petty recrimination,” she said.
“No one will find it motivating that one of their respected leaders has been given the chop for spurious reasons. The situation demands maturity and rising above personality clashes, otherwise it risks demoralising hard-working and clever people, who will give up and go. That would be a terrible outcome,” she added.
Truss, a previous chief secretary to the Treasury secretary, pledged to take on the “Treasury orthodoxy” during the Conservative Party leadership campaign.
But Shah argued that there are benefits to its approach.
“Sometimes it is difficult to jolt HMT out of its natural habitat of small ‘c’ fiscal conservatism and aversion to risk – but that’s no bad thing,” she said.
She argued that the department “isn’t the hindrance people claim”, noting that it “essentially works to whatever the chancellor of the day wants”.
“It provides impartial advice based on the facts and, if there is a decision to drive it in a different direction, then it complies. Kwasi Kwarteng should learn from his predecessors, who moulded the place in their own images. No one was in any doubt when George Osborne or Gordon Brown were in charge that the department worked for them,” she said.
Former top civil servants were extremely critical of Truss and chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s decision to seek “new leadership” at the Treasury, warning that it would damage morale and risk politicising the civil service.
David Normington, a former first civil service commissioner, said that in sacking “one of the ablest civil servants of his generation, the prime minister and chancellor have sent a clear message to the civil service that they are not interested in impartial advice and intend to surround themselves with 'yes' men and women”.
Shah echoed the call to protect civil service impartiality.
“That requires the civil service to ensure that it does, in fact, give impartial advice and seriously attempts to consider views at odds with its infamous ‘orthodoxy’. But a little trust has to be shown by both sides – some goodwill, to mend the fractures,” she wrote.
“The challenges we face are as grave as any we’ve seen for a generation, and we could do without the internal squabbling, however irritating the Treasury can be.”