May says UK civil service ‘envy of the world' in parting message praising commitment and impartiality

Internal memo praises civil service's 'commitment to serve the government, the country and your fellow citizens objectively and professionally”

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Theresa May has praised the “objectivity and commitment” of civil servants in a parting message ahead of stepping down as prime minister today.

In an internal memo to officials this morning, May, who will step down after prime minister’s questions to make way for her successor Boris Johnson, said she had been proud to work alongside civil servants over the last nine years as home secretary and prime minister.

The memo, seen by CSW, read: “Last week, in my final major speech as prime minister, I explained that I got into politics not to simply talk about ideas, but to put them into action.


“Over the past nine years, first at the Home Office and then at Downing Street, it has been a privilege to work alongside so many brilliant civil servants who are committed to doing just that.”

May said the officials she had worked with in both posts were “part of a much bigger picture – more than 400,000 highly skilled and hardworking men and women, each serving the people of this country in a myriad of different ways”. 

And in what appeared to be a rebuttal to repeated briefings against the civil service in recent months, May praised officials’ “commitment to serve the government, the country and your fellow citizens objectively and professionally”.

“[That] is something I will always respect, and which I know will be of value to my successor,” she said.

Civil servants’ impartiality has frequently been called into question in recent months by politicians and political commentators across the political spectrum.

May’s European Union adviser and chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins has been the target of much of this criticism, with some politicians suggesting he was to blame for the government's failure to reach a withdrawal agreement with the EU.

The head of the civil service, Sir Mark Sedwill, who has also been fiercely criticised over Whitehall's Brexit preparations, took the unprecedented step of writing to The Times last year to call for an end to "sniping" against officials after anonymous Conservative MPs reportedly said Robbins was "masterminding an establishment plot to thwart the will of the people who voted for Brexit”.

In her message today, May wrote: "Whether it is delivering the world-class public services on which we all rely, working to make a success of Brexit, or developing the policies that will improve countless lives in the future, you do so much to make the UK the country we all love.

“In Whitehall and across the country, on the front line and behind the scenes, from apprentices to ambassadors and permanent secretaries to [accounting officers], you achieve that by living the values that make our civil service the envy of the world.”

May’s comments come as civil service trade unions Prospect and the FDA this week write to the leaders of all the main UK parties demanding that they pledge to protect civil service impartiality.

Following Johnson’s victory, the unions have made a joint call to him and new Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, as well as Labour chief Jeremy Corbyn, to end to the attacks on the civil service that culminated in the resignation of former ambassador to the US Sir Kim Darroch.

The unions urged the leaders to maintain the impartiality and integrity of the civil service, and defend those principles, and those who seek to uphold them, from political attack. Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy and FDA general secretary Dave Penman also call on leaders to encourage the civil service to provide robust evidence-based advice to inform the development of government policy.

“For too long, the integrity and political impartiality of our public servants have been questioned and their characters impugned by those on both sides of the political divide," they write.

“Political failures on Brexit have been attributed to a lack of will on the part of the civil service. Figures on all sides have said that the civil service is acting against them, is working to undermine them, or has some kind of secret deep state agenda. None of these are true and it seriously damages both public faith in vital services, and the morale of those on the receiving end who are unable to defend themselves.

“This is a time of growing global turmoil and no peacetime government has ever been so reliant on its civil service and other public institutions. They are getting on with their jobs while our MPs play politics with the country’s future.”

Clancy and Penman said that by supporting the pledge, party leaders "will not only demonstrate your commitment to an impartial and professional civil service, but also send a clear message to the hundreds of thousands of civil servants that loyally serve the government of the day that you will use your best efforts to defend them".

Additonal reporting by Richard Johnstone

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