Tory attacks on civil service ‘pathetic’, George Osborne says

Former chancellor and ex cabinet secretary call for Liz Truss to end "war” on Whitehall
George Osborne. Photo: Russell Hart/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

06 Sep 2022

Attacks on the civil service must end if Liz Truss wants to succeed as prime minister, former chancellor George Osborne and ex-cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell have warned.

Criticising the civil service has felt increasingly like a popular sport among some government ministers, with Truss taking on the mantle herself during the campaign, pledging to go to war on Whitehall and “woke” civil service culture.

Continued civil service bashing, which has most recently included criticism of flexible working, training courses and unsubstantiated claims of anti-semitism, will end badly, Osborne and O’Donnell have said.

“You’re not going to get anything done as a government if you don’t have the civil service working for you,” Osborne told Global’s The News Agents podcast yesterday following Truss's victory in the Conservative Party leadership race.

All this talk of a war on the civil service is pathetic from the Tory party and it's inconsistency of government policy, not civil servants, that has failed.

“If you pick a war with the civil service, nothing will get done.”

Making similar suggestions on BBC Radio 4 yesterday, Lord O’Donnell said: “If I were cabinet secretary, I would be saying to the prime minister there are two things you need to do.

“One is that business about uniting the party and getting a cabinet with all the best talents. The second thing is you need to stop these attacks on the civil service.

“This is your delivery arm, these are the people you need on side. They are there for you, but treat them with respect. I’m hoping that she will realise that these are the people she needs to work with.”

O’Donnell said having the right relationship with the civil service will also be key to regaining public confidence following a series of government scandals in the last few years, which ultimately led to Boris Johnson's demise as PM.

A YouGov poll released last week found that the one issue where Truss is seen as being better equipped to handle than her predecessor is “restoring trust in politics”.

To achieve this, Truss must – among other things – give the civil service "the respect that they deserve and need”, O’Donnell said. 

Osborne, who was chancellor for all six years of David Cameron’s premiership before Theresa May sacked him, also warned Truss of the importance of keeping the Treasury on side – pointing out that Rishi Sunak’s resignation as chancellor triggered the end of Johnson’s tenure.

“Prime ministers who don’t work with the Treasury always fail. If you pick a war with the Treasury, trust me, nothing will get done.”

Osborne also suggested now was not the right time to be considering major civil service reform.

Truss made a series of announcements during the leadership in the campaign aimed at transforming the civil service, including scrapping diversity and inclusion roles, clamping down on arm’s-length bodies and a plan to introduce regional pay boards which she quickly U-turned on.

 She has also committed to Johnson's plan to slash the headcount of the civil service.

“If you really wanted a complete overhaul of the British civil service, you’d have to fight a general election, get the mandate for it, do it right at the beginning,” Osborne said.

“We’re way beyond that point. And so she should make them her allies and deliver this agenda.”

Osborne has spoken previously about the need to treat the civil service with respect, saying they should have "parallel careers of equal value" to those of politicians.

However, some of his own decisions as chancellor were extremely unpopular with many civil servants. His austerity drive led to public services and jobs being cut, as well as a 1% pay cap for public servants. His attempts to worsen redundancy terms in 2015 led to accusations of a "war by the government against its own staff"., and he instigated the pledge to cap severance payouts for public-sector workers at £95,000 – a move that has only recently been abandoned after several attempts.

And he has not been afraid to criticise officials since leaving government. In 2020, he said civil servants should take more responsibility for the Windrush scandal, saying Home Office staff had failed to warn ministers about the potential impact of the hostile environment policy.

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