Ministers allowed civil servants to become ‘political punchbags’ amid Brexit prep

Successive prime ministers “failed to offer any significant protection” as officials came under attack, IfG says

Photo: Amanda Lynn/Zuma Press/PA Images

Ministers failed to protect civil servants from unprecedented professional and personal attacks from MPs and the media as officials were blamed for political failings over Brexit, the Institute for Government has said.

In a report that also found Brexit pushed the civil service to become more agile and innovative but exacerbated staff churn, the IfG said the civil service was “increasingly left to operate in a vacuum without clear political leadership” as cabinet splits emerged under then-prime minister Theresa May.

“Those suspicious of the civil service’s role in the EU referendum campaign used this vacuum to deliver increasingly public attacks on individual civil servants,” the report, published today, said.


“The civil service and individual officials were left exposed in a polarised political environment – with prime ministers unwilling to offer protection,” it added.

Both May and her successor, Boris Johnson, “failed to offer any significant protection”.

May’s chief negotiator, Sir Olly Robbins, was once described notably by an anonymous MP as “Rasputinesque” and was frequently accused of attempting to thwart the UK’s departure from the EU.

The report cited a combative select committee hearing in which Robbins, appearing alongside May, was asked to confirm “personally, in [his] heart of hearts” whether he believed it was right to leave the EU.

Robbins backed the government policy of the day, but the prime minister was “notably silent [and] offered no support to her key adviser, who was taking personal and professional attacks as a result of her policy decisions”, the report said. 

The interaction was characteristic of the lack of support for civil servants facing “unprecedented criticism” and were being singled out personally by pro-Brexit MPs and commentators, the report said.

The attacks on Robbins, as well as anonymous death threats against at then-HM Revenue and Customs perm sec Jon Thompson, prompted cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill to write to The Times calling for an end to “sniping” against civil servants.

“As politicians refused to take responsibility for the government of the day’s decisions, the civil service became more vulnerable, the IfG said – but Sedwill’s was the “only formal public defence of officials” at the time.

CSW has previously reported that an early response to the attacks was coordinated between Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, but did not get signed off after it was decided that it would have made matters worse if government hit back.

May’s successor as prime minister, Boris Johnson, “also stayed silent when civil servants faced public attacks”, the report said.

The British ambassador to the United States, Sir Kim Darroch, resigned last summer following attacks on his integrity after memos criticism the Trump administration were leaked to the press, and the IfG said Johnson’s lack of public support for Darroch “seemed to trigger the resignation”.

“Those actions – and inaction – sent a message to officials that ministers were prepared to allow voiceless officials to act as political punchbags in situations where the alternative would see a hit to their own standing,” the report said.

Brexit also exposed wider tensions in the civil service’s role to serve the government of the day, the report found. In particular, it raised questions about what officials should do “when the government was openly suggesting it was willing to play fast and loose with the law and the law and the constitution”.

“The civil service has no democratic mandate separate from the government of the day, but when parliament and the government were at loggerheads, the civil service too often found itself stuck in the middle without clarity over what was expected of it and by whom,” the report said.

“This has raised questions about whether the civil service has appropriate tools at its disposal when the relationship between ministers, parliament and the civil service comes under pressure.”

'Weaknesses exposed'

The report said that as it prepared for Brexit, the civil service became more agile, with a greater focus on wellbeing as pressure and workloads grew. Officials were moved to staff emergency operations centres, the number of job shares increased and departments trained large numbers of mental-health first aiders.

Tens of thousands of civil servants changed roles or were seconded to other departments to focus on Brexit-facing roles.

But Brexit also exacerbated existing problems of staff churn and “clunky” recruitment processes, the think tank said. Large numbers of staff left their roles after short periods, and a number of high-profile figures who were leading the preparations ahead of the original 29 March 2019 deadline had moved on by the time the UK actually left the EU on 31 October.

Department for Exiting the European Union permanent secretary Philip Rycroft and DExEU’s director of policy and delivery coordination, Tom Shinner, were among some of the key figures who departed before the UK’s eventual departure from the bloc.

“We have seen the civil service at its best in the sheer scale and complexity of the work it has done, often in new, innovative ways and at breakneck speed. But we have also seen some of its weaknesses exposed – extreme pressure has highlighted issues in its workforce model and policy making,” the report said.

It found that as divisions emerged and grew between politicians about how to handle the Brexit process, civil servants were “unable to broker compromise” despite putting forward policies intended to keep all sides happy or “use ambiguous wording to defer conflict”.

“Instead, critical decisions were deferred for too long, options were never ruled out and preparations for the huge practical realities of Brexit were held back – leaving the UK underprepared ahead of key deadlines,” it said.

Meanwhile, an “environment of secrecy in a tense political climate” damaged government’s relationship with business as for a long time, civil servants could not meaningfully discuss Brexit planning with businesses.

Non-disclosure agreements later enabled more constructive discussions to happen, but the report said businesses and ministers each felt the other had ignored their concerns and priorities.

“The civil service was left in a difficult position of trying to construct a middle way that worked for both,” it said.

And the civil service’s communications strategy was undermined by the political deadlock on Brexit, the IfG said.

“Brexit shows clearly that government communications do not operate in a vacuum… Although public communications improved under Boris Johnson, it was ultimately impossible to persuade businesses to spend money on preparing for no deal when the front pages of newspapers were full of stories about it being blocked by parliament,” it said.

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