Early Thursday morning I filed my column for this venerable publication, slightly late as usual, but on message as always. What was my ask of the new prime minister for the civil service? By Thursday afternoon it was redundant, mainly because so was Tom Scholar, the permanent secretary at the Treasury.
Despite what many people may think, I’m an optimist. I know it’s a bit off brand for a Scottish trade union leader – by design we should give Gordon Brown a run for his money in the dour stakes – but I’m a whisky tumbler-half-full kind of guy.
Maybe my column didn’t brim with effervescence, but it was written on the basis that a new PM could herald a new relationship with the civil service. My optimism was based on an assumption that anyone looking at the chaos of the last few years, from the turnover of ministers (never mind prime ministers) to the damaging and deteriorating relationship between ministers and civil servants, must surely recognise that a change of approach was necessary.
Ironically, rather than just focus on the relentless self-defeating attacks on civil servants I instead emphasised the need for stability, experience and competence. I wrote: “The prime minister inherits a number of fundamental challenges that have either been mismanaged or dodged by her predecessor. Brexit isn’t done despite the mantra, as she well knows. The war in Ukraine raises issues for our future security and a reworking of the world order that has to some degree been maintained post-Cold War. Covid still blights our public services, with backlogs and an exhausted NHS having record vacancies on top of the challenges every government faces around funding of the NHS and social care. The cost-of-living crisis, fuelled in part by an energy crisis, could also lead to a prolonged recession and this raises challenges for our net zero ambitions.
“Liz Truss may or may not have the solutions to these problems, but if this government is to stand any chance of solving them, it needs a civil service that is committed, motivated and given the tools to solve them. “
My hope was that, as the new prime minister moves her focus to governing rather than just winning a vote among a not very typical electorate, reality would bite. She needs to deliver, not just on those big issues, but on the thousands of other promises and pledges that any government needs to if it wants to stay in power.
Instead, just two days into her premiership, the new chancellor sacked the Treasury permanent secretary with immediate effect. Minutes later, the announcement was made that the Queen had passed away so this seismic decision was naturally overshadowed by those events. It is, though, an extraordinary act – and one that has ramifications not just for the relationship with the civil service, but for the fundamental principles that underpin a permanent and impartial civil service.
"Why then would a confident government and chancellor not want one of the most experienced and admired civil servants of his generation at the heart of government?"
Tom Scholar had been permanent secretary at the Treasury since 2016, he’d served five very different chancellors, and he was reappointed in January 2021 for a further five-year term. He was highly regarded by ministers, borne out in the tributes paid to him by his former chancellors. He has vast experience, not least in dealing with major financial crises. He had been at the Treasury in 2007 during the banking collapse, and during Covid and the – until now – unprecedented financial support delivered via the furlough scheme. Just, you would have thought, the sort of experience needed given the cost-of-living crisis the country now faces.
That he has been sacked so early on in the term of this government, before a new chancellor has even had a chance to build a relationship, says something about the approach of this new Truss administration. Policy, after all, is determined by ministers. If Trussenomics is to be different from her predecessors’ approach, then so be it. The civil service is there to serve governments of different colours, not just personnel. If the civil service can serve Gordon Brown and George Osborne, it can serve Rishi Sunak and Kwasi Kwarteng who, after all, have been in the same cabinet for the last two years.
Scholar’s sacking ultimately shows a weakness in government. Ministers know that Scholar is experienced and admired. He would have given his best advice, but ultimately delivered on the government’s agenda. He would have tested and challenged any policy direction with evidence – after all, that is what he is obligated to do under the civil service code. Ministers also have “a duty to give fair consideration and due weight to informed and impartial advice from civil servants”. They do not, however, have to follow it.
Good ministers don’t fear robust advice; they welcome it. Why then would a confident government and chancellor not want one of the most experienced and admired civil servants of his generation at the heart of government? Was it fear of ministerial directions, as some have speculated? They can only be requested on grounds of regularity, propriety, value for money or feasibility. They are rare – too rare – but they epitomise the democratic basis of government. A civil servant doesn’t get a veto, even if they think a policy won’t work and a minister gets their name all over it.
Unless, of course, that’s exactly what you’re afraid of.
Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union