Treating civil service as hostile is 'foolish and wrong', ex-PM John Major warns ministers

Former Conservative leader also says plans for an Office of the Prime Minister sound “a little like a gimmick”
Former prime minister John Major speaking at the IfG yesterday

Former prime minister Sir John Major has chastised ministers for treating the civil service as a "hostile blob which seeks to undermine the government".

In a contentious speech yesterday in which Major also took aim at ministers undermining the public’s trust and said the Partygate scandal had damaged parliament’s reputation, the ex-PM said the present government “looks at enemies where there are none”.

“Moreover, it then has a habit of choosing the wrong enemies. Most recently, it's been waging campaigns against the civil service and the BBC. In neither case is this wise or justified, or even in the government's own best interests,” he told an audience at the Institute for Government.

“The civil service is a support structure to government; treating it as a hostile blob, which seeks to undermine the government, is both foolish and wrong.”

“Ministers should remember that the civil service is more trusted than the government itself,” Major added, having nodded earlier in his speech to research on the subject from Ipsos MORI.

He urged ministers to focus their attention instead on “reforms to improve public life”.

Office of the Prime Minister 'looks like a gimmick'

During his appearance at the IfG, Major also expressed scepticism about Boris Johnson’s plans to create an Office of the Prime Minister – which he said sounded “a little like a gimmick”.

Johnson promised to set up the new office, which he has also referred to as a “prime minister’s department”, the day the initial findings of Sue Gray’s investigation into potentially rule-breaking gatherings at Downing Street while coronavirus restrictions were in place.

Gray, Cabinet Office second perm sec, said the number of staff working in No.10 has increased to the extent that it had become comparable to a "small government department" but that the structures supporting its operations had “not evolved sufficiently to meet the demands of this expansion”.

Former healthcare boss Samantha Jones was named as the interim permanent secretary for No.10 this week.

Major said: “It's an interesting phrase to call it the Office of the Prime Minister. We just used to call it No.10.

“It sounds a little like a gimmick. I'd like to see exactly what the Office of the Prime Minister means.”

His comments came in response to a question from Sir Alex Allan, Johnson’s former adviser on ministerial interests, who resigned in 2020 when Johnson rejected his finding that home secretary Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code by bullying staff.

Allan was previously Major’s principal private secretary, and the erstwhile PM said when the two worked together there were “between 85 and 95 people” in No.10 who had close working relationships. He said he now believed the figure may have topped 200.

“I cannot for the life of me conceive, in the way No.10 works, that it can work credibly with that number of people – most of whom must have a job that probably doesn't need doing and certainly ought not to be done inside Downing Street,” he said.

Major also said it had been a “mistake” that the number of special advisers in No.10 had grown so much in recent years.

“There is a role for special advisers. But I do rather think they ought to be competent to advise on the basis of values, on the basis of experience – not on the basis of intellect, however, great.

“Experience does matter when you're dealing with government,” he said. “You need someone to say ‘hang on, we tried that before, it doesn't work’. Or… ‘what you're proposing has drawbacks’. That's really what you need in No.10. Not lots of clever young people running around with ideas and political ambition.”

Partygate 'has made government look distinctly shifty'

Major also used his keynote address to make a major intervention in the Partygate scandal, saying Johnson should resign if he is found to have misled parliament by saying in December that Covid guidance was “followed at all times”.  

He said that the scandal has damaged parliament's reputation and that “ministers were sent out to defend the indefensible – making themselves look gullible or foolish,” he said.

“Collectively, this has made the government look distinctly shifty, which has consequences that go far beyond political unpopularity.”

Among other things, Gray’s update on her investigation said the lock-down breaking gatherings at Downing Street represented "failures of leadership and judgement" by No.10 and the Cabinet Office.

Major added: "Deliberate lies to parliament have been fatal to political careers – and must always be so."

"The lack of trust in the elected portion of our democracy cannot be brushed aside. Parliament has a duty to correct this," he said.

"If it does not, and trust is lost at home, our politics is broken."

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