Working with Tony Blair, memories of Margaret Thatcher, and a defence of PFI: lunch with former cabinet secretary Lord Andrew Turnbull

Former cabinet secretary Lord Andrew Turnbull shares his reflections, and a lunch, with Suzannah Brecknell


By Suzannah Brecknell

28 Sep 2018

Photography by Lousie Haywood-Schiefer

Who? Lord Turnbull joined the civil service in 1970 as an economist. He spent much of his career in the Treasury, with a stint in No10 as private secretary and later principal private secretary to Margaret Thatcher. He was appointed permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions before returning to the Treasury as perm sec in 1998.  He became cabinet secretary in 2003, serving until 2005. Now an active member of the House of Lords, he sits on the Economic Affairs Committee. Known for his meritocratic principles, he famously lists as his club in Who’s Who not a rarefied members-only establishment but “Tottenham Hotspur”

The venue Rocca di Papa, family-friendly, popular Italian local in leafy Dulwich, south London

The menu Mains: tagliolini with white cornish crab meat, chilli, and bottarga shavings and a risotto alla pescatora with prawns, mussels, clams squid, and saffron pastilles. Dessert: affogato. We drank: sparkling water, coffee. 

We discussed

Moving to a scrutiny role in the Lords after decades making policy

It’s very satisfying. What happens in a lot of walks of life is the more senior you get the more humdrum the job gets: you’ve got a lot of management and quite a lot of going round meeting people – which can be quite fun, but people hanker for when they were a principal (Grade 7) actually doing the work. On these committees you kind of go back to doing the work as opposed to managing the work, which is actually a rather pleasurable transition.

His proudest achievement

Well when I was cabinet secretary we changed the thinking about development of skills in something that used to be called PSG – professional skills for government. All sorts of initiatives have been and gone but this one is still there [now as the functions agenda]. The insight behind it is that the top organisations are strong in all the skills they need.

The second is opening up [of recruitment]. The civil service had a phase of this during the war, when many people went off into the armed forces and the demands of government meant they had to go around and find the best in the country. But then after the war instead of saying “well that was a jolly good experience let’s carry on” it was allowed to slip back to the Northcote-Trevelyan origins of recruiting people early so they stay with you for [their whole] career. That system has tremendous advantages – it is probably cheaper and you can inculcate culture and history, commitment and high standards. The downside is that it’s too ingrown. One of the things I tried to do particularly was improve the relationship between the mandarinate and the local authority chief executives.

Another thing I am very proud of is [redeveloping] the Treasury building itself. We had a very competitive PFI programme, and we had a delivery team that was top-class and really wanted to make this thing work because it would impress the people who ran the whole policy [of PFI]. That building has been completely transformed. It cost £200m but it has improved productivity.

In terms of other parts of my career I would say working with Mrs Thatcher was a great pleasure, I never achieved remotely the same relationship with either Brown or Blair – though I wasn’t the only one.

Whether this was because of the different nature of the cabinet secretary role (which he performed under Blair) compared to the PPS role (which he performed under Thatcher)

I have had this argument with Robin Butler and Richard Wilson [his predecessors as cabinet secretary]. They tend to stress that the cabinet secretary serves government as a whole, and I have said if you’re right about that the prime minister will say “well who’s looking after me?” I always put in that the first job [of cabinet secretary] is to support the leader of the government and then the government as a whole. Otherwise the PM will say: “Let’s create a prime minister’s department”.

I always wanted to make sure that the prime minister’s early response was through the Cabinet Office because they are the people that are best placed to solve problems. I had a group of people working for me who were really good at getting a hard and knotty problem and untangling it. Not using them was a mistake.

His relationship with Blair

Blair had got to the end of his first term and he said “I need to reform public services we haven’t really achieved anything” so he made it very clear that the people contending to become cabinet secretary had to set out a prospectus of what we would do and reform of public service had to be a part of that. I concluded that there were three jobs of the cabinet secretary: managing day-to-day business and decisions taken; the performance and improvement of the civil service; and being the head honcho in the intelligence programme. In a post 9/11 world you couldn’t do all three: my suggestion was that the bit I should hive off was the post of intelligence and security coordinator. People were rather sniffy about it and said “well it meant you didn’t play much of a role in Iraq”. The reason I didn’t play much of a role in Iraq was that Blair wanted to run it himself.

Whether it would have been beneficial to have cabinet secretary directions, as recommended by the Better Government Initiative and Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee following the Iraq war.

What [Admiral Lord] Michael Boyce [then the chief of defence staff] and I asked for was a confirmation that [invading Iraq] was legal. He needed it in order to be able to commit troops and I needed it to be able to tell people that we are allowed to spend money on this venture. That led to the attorney general’s advice but the policy itself… did I oppose it at the time? No I didn’t and the reason I didn’t was that I was being told by intelligence people that the threat of weapons of mass destruction was serious. What happened subsequently was we learnt that Saddam Hussein actually gave up his weapons of mass destruction after the first Gulf War but not his ambition to have them so he put his effort in trying pretend that he was a good citizen to get sanctions removed and then he could have reconstituted his weapons of mass destruction as and when he needed it. So the people that said he was a danger were right, and the people that said as of this moment he’s not a threat – like Robin Cook – they were right, too.

What makes a good minister

Knowing your own mind, but being prepared to listen.  Take Mrs Thatcher, she certainly knew her own mind and could be quite hectoring about it but when push came to shove she was prepared to do some things that initially she opposed.

They have to be prepared to withstand unpopularity. Mrs Thatcher had all sorts of industrial closures to deal with – the Ravenscraig steelworks, Scott Lithgow ship builders – and she was prepared to see it out.

The miners’ strike

The miners’ strike made [Thatcher] very unpopular but I thought it was the best thing she ever did, actually one of the best things I ever worked on was establishing the two principles [which guided her].  One is that the economics of the coal industry have got to reflect the realities of the economy. What killed the coal wasn’t Mrs Thatcher, it was natural gas and the electrification of the railways which meant demand for coal was dropping. The second was that trade unionism is not above the law. Both those things were worth fighting for to the end, even though it took a year.

Now, you can say that the government didn’t make a very good job of sheltering the mining communities amid the big wave of closures which actually came when Heseltine was trade and industry secretary, but that is the only bit which should have been done better.

“I had a group of people who were really good at getting a knotty problem and untangling it. Not using them was a mistake”

It was another example of her taking on advice – she would say: “let’s take them to court, let’s do this. let’s do that”. And others said: “Time is on your side because they’ve called the strike at the start of the summer, but do not do anything which will force other unions to support them.” The other unions hated [NUM leader Arthur] Scargill but they couldn’t afford publicly, in any wider dispute, to be seen as not supporting [the miners]. So you had to make sure that they were never provoked: keep the temperature down keep it all focused.

Her belligerent instincts were all harnessed and she listened to advice when it really mattered.

Numeracy in the civil service

One thing I regret about the civil service is that to this day it is still too literate rather than numerate. Bugbear number one is when you get a chart and the numbers in the text bear no relation to the chart. Or, they give you a number like “we have allocated £107m to this” without any way of telling you whether £107m is additional money, over what time period, and is it a [relatively] big number or a small number? Is it going to be better, is it going to be worse? 

The civil service operates in words, with documents in portrait format – in other words, A4, this way up… words, words, words. The business world operates in landscape charts. So there will be a proposition: crime is going up. And a graph to prove it, so the ratio of the evidence to the proposition is richer than it is in the civil service.

You would get phrases like: Thames Water has stopped enough leaks to fill Wembley Stadium. Is that a big number or small number? Is it better than last year?

Spending Rounds

One thing that’s changed is the nature of dialogue between Treasury and departments. When I arrived in 1970 my first job was secretary of PESC [public expenditure survey committee], made up of the Treasury and all the finance officers. It was almost as though the negotiations took place there and then got promoted up to ministerial level and then you had the Star Chamber, which had no independent existence. It was just the personification of [de facto deputy prime minister] Willie Whitelaw.

You then had the introduction of the “planning total” where you’d set in advance what the bottom line figure was and you had to make the numbers fit that. There was also the contingency reserve, which was the Treasury’s nemesis because people used to play games with it as they knew there was a pot of money there. We [the Treasury] played other games as well: if ever the figures weren’t working out we could always put a different number for our net contribution to the European budget because no one else knew what that number was.

“One thing I regret about the civil service is that to this day it is still too literate rather than numerate”

We then changed the planning total into two parts: AME and DEL… that always makes me think of a car with the furry dice saying “Amy and Del”. But what the Treasury hated most was the prospect that all the negotiations would be done and when you added it all up AME was exceeded. So Gordon Brown introduced a very much more top-down process: I call it the “Brown Envelope”. Negotiations would take place between departments and you worked out what sums were at stake, and then there was a trilateral between Ed Balls, Jeremy Heywood at No 10 and John Gieve representing the Treasury. They’d work that out and then departments were sent a settlement letter saying: “Your spending totals for the next three years will be XYZ, and in that period I expect you to have introduced a new system for this, reviewed that, abandoned that, and sold these assets.” Departments felt that they were being treated with contempt.

PFI and the balance sheet

People say we’ve shifted a lot of things off-balance-sheet… well the things “off-balance-sheet” that really matter are things like future care of the elderly. The amount of future PFI liabilities is absolutely trivial. There is a case that certain PFI deals may have been done simply to shift money, but what really shifts money the worst is the whole student finance regime, which is a disgrace. The interest to students is now 6%, they increase their income and the deficit falls, but most of that will capitalise. Half of it won’t get paid, but that doesn’t show up for 30 years so you make your debt/GDP ratio look much better than it is. That is much more of a distortion than any of these PFI type schemes.

His remark [to Sue Cameron] that it had been a stroke of luck not to work for Gordon Brown as PM

I liked him but getting a decision from him was difficult. The most difficult thing to get a decision from him on was “I just need your signature on this so that they can announce the appointment of so-and-so the next new chair of such-and-such”. He wasn’t interested in any of that so he didn’t do it.  It was a sort of tragedy that he burned to do this job and either he never had the skills for it or by the time he’d got it the moment had passed. He had his moments of genius. The first was in 1997 when he came in and said: “Whatever the Conservatives were going to spend that is what we’ll spend not a penny more, not a penny less”. That sent a message that he wasn’t going to do as previous Labour governments had done – spend a lot and then retrench – so he bought a lot of credit. He created the independence of the central bank, he kept us out of the Euro, and when the financial crisis came he effectively went back to his old job and had three months of being really effective, really influential.

His description of Brown as ‘Stalinist’ to a Financial Times journalist

I shouldn’t have said that, really. It was in particular in relation to his use of the denial of information – not telling the prime minister what was going to be in his budget. Eventually talented people leave, and the Labour Party lost quite a few people like Andy Burnham. Neither [Brown nor Blair] were promoters of talent.


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