‘Sir Humphrey’ is knifed as ministers blame anyone but themselves

Boris Johnson (Photo: David Sedlecký on Wikimedia Commons)

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Whilst the ‘Sir Humphrey’ image of the civil service is one that has frequently gained accolades from those in politics – including Margaret Thatcher – it is the politicians giving those accolades who should be at the centre of public concern as regards the way government operates: for them ‘Yes, Minister’ seems an accurate depiction of the civil service’s lack of want for change and entitled position.

At moments of national emergency and crisis, it is well-established in the UK for us to become more aware of the officials and public servants, who usually are ‘camera-shy’  as Michael Cockerill described them, lurking as they often do, in the shadows of Whitehall; it is during these usually brief moments of blinding spotlights and camera flashes, that the public and media place greater responsibility upon the shoulders of these unelected ‘bureaucrats’, and politicians begin to find an appetite for hiding back behind the curtains and – if necessary – thrusting the knives in the back. 

Of course, we should not forget the important role of the Civil Service and officials in being involved in the governance of the nation. But we must not lose sight of those who are the true masters of government and who are accountable to us – the elected politicians. 

Yet what we have seen apparently throughout the Covid-19 pandemic is an accelerated tendency for embattled politicians – with fewer and fewer institutions to blame for their own failure (EU gone, the Opposition’s Parliamentary majority removed, Parliament as a major ‘obstructor’ ended) – to point the finger beyond themselves and at the Civil Service.

With Johnson’s Cabinet heavily predicated on loyalty to the cause – specifically, to Cummings’ plans and Cummings’ control in his role as a Special Advisor, not as a civil servant – there is little room for ministers to point the finger at one another without the threat of being axed for pointing the finger. This has left officials vulnerable, especially in the face of both the pandemic and Brexit.

Even under Theresa May – though her grip on power was fragile, and government incompetence actually resulted in ministerial dismissals such as that of Priti Patel for her undisclosed Israeli meetings, and Gavin Williamson’s (first, if not last?) firing over the leaking of the Huawei documents in 2019 – a dangerous blame-game did begin to emerge against officials. 

This was highlighted in a report from the Institute of Government, released early in the Covid crisis. It noted how the government largely let civil servants be ‘hung out to dry’, with the press allowed to openly attack the apparent performance of civil servants involved in Brexit talks – notably Olly Robbins, the UK’s chief negotiator; Ministers offered little support or defence to their exposed civil servant staffs. 

Aggressive press coverage of civil servants has been completely ignored by the Johnson government, with perhaps some hoping that more public scrutiny of the civil service will sow the ground for more backing and demand for civil service reform – a key obsession of the Johnson government: these so-called ‘reforms’ in fact amount to heavily politicising the civil service, with Mark Sedwill removed as Cabinet Secretary, to be replaced in the role of National Security Advisor by a political appointee, David Frost. 

The hanging-out-to-dry of civil servants, officials and official bodies is now becoming increasingly weaponised by the Johnson government: Sedwill himself saw repeated leaks against himself in the media, with sources most likely emanating from political entities within government. 

More recently, entire public bodies have been used as scapegoats and fall-back for government failure: Public Health England (‘PHE’) is being axed, having been strongly implicated by government ministers – notably Health Secretary Matt Hancock – as responsible for several major failures during the Covid-19 pandemic, including repeated failures in testing the virus. In reality, PHE was not responsible for overall testing capacity. 

A further issue of great concern is the fact that ultimately even when there were mistakes by officials   or poor results following actions taken by civil servants, the ministers are elected to take charge and accept responsibility – the civil servants are accountable to ministers, not to the public or the press. All too frequently, however, ministers under Johnson seem to lack either the independence or the individual strength to challenge policy experts and seek diverse advice: ministers are failing to hold officials to account, relying instead on officials knowing best, and when they make mistakes placing the blame squarely on them, removing any real leadership or responsibility from ministers.  

William Hague, the former Foreign Secretary, has called for ministers to be proactive and accept a key tenet of our Parliamentary democracy, that ultimately the buck stops with ministers not officials; Hague wrote in the Daily Telegraph: ‘Expert officials left to themselves will keep adding to a policy that might have been an error. Someone has to ask, “Is this all based on the wrong assumption from square one?”…That someone is a minister, listening to diverse advice.’

Even David Cameron knew that the mantra ‘experts know best’, was not something ministers could sit back and relax on their laurels about. Anthony Seldon wrote about this in his account of Cameron’s time in No 10. In 2011, Cameron, having read Andrew Roberts’ brilliant book Masters and Commanders which recounts Winston Churchill’s debates with his Chief of the Defence Staff Alan Brooke over grand-strategy during the Second World War, himself realised he had to hold to account the expertise and views put forward by his Chief of Defence Staff David King on the issue of the Ministry of Defence’s large spending black hole and British military operations in Afghanistan.

Challenging and questioning officials is crucial: it is not about attacking experts, but about making sure everything is out in the open, and that all necessary issues have been thought through. The Johnson government has failed to do this.

Tom McTague – in an article for The Atlantic – thoroughly reviewed the UK government’s actions during the Covid crisis, with Johnson’s failure to question officials and experts and thus take ownership of decision-making being highlighted; McTague writes:‘One of the central criticisms of Johnson’s leadership—expressed to me in multiple conversations—is not a refusal to accept the truth…but a failure to challenge his experts’ strategy. It was the prime minister’s duty to question the scientific advice, to demand more.’ The former Prison’s Minister, Rory Stewart, had even warned on 12 March 2020 – as McTague notes – that ‘experts are experts in narrow things…experts don’t all agree…the scientists advise and the politicians decide…It’s the Prime Minister’s job to choose the strategy.’  

Now, however, mistakes or mess-ups by government departments no longer seem to be due to ministerial leadership by those elected and supposedly accountable to us the public. Instead, officials and civil servants are repeatedly blamed, bullied, and sacked for government failure. The once crucial form of democratic accountability of government, the leadership of elected ministers, has become another bastion of UK democracy being whittled down by this government: since the exam results chaos and U-turn, it has barely been Gavin Williamson – as Secretary of State for Education – whose head has been placed on the block, but rather that of Jonathan Slater, the four-year Permanent Secretary to the Department of Education, who is faced with being ousted following both the exam results and schools-reopening controversies. 

Even where there has been no clear official – as opposed to ministerial – involvement in government failure, the government does little to hold ministers to account: when Housing Minister, Robert Jenrick, signed off on Richard Desmond’s Westferry housing development – freeing Desmond from paying a £45m community infrastructure levy, having spoken to Desmond about the development at a Tory donors’ event – there were ultimately no repercussions for Jenrick from the government. 

And when ministers don’t feel they get what they want from civil servants, rather than challenging or holding their officials to account, bullying is used, resulting in examples as we saw with the resignation of the Home Office Permanent Secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam. 

We cannot afford for the Civil Service to be held up to the same level of public scrutiny as those directly elected to represent and govern. Public scrutiny with the constant media attention, debates simplified to sound bites and even polarization over what is the truth, is not healthy for what is ultimately an instrument for governance by elected masters. Not only would much of this public scrutiny simply maim the morale and the ability for officials to ‘tell truth to power’, it could give elected ministers power OVER the civil service through blackmail and the threats of savage media attention. This power OVER the civil service would mean the civil service’s important advisory role and provision of expertise would be extremely reduced.

It is certainly threatening to curtail the government’s ability to perform its so-called position as the ‘people’s government’ – a position being drastically eroded already.

George Richmond grew up on a Gloucestershire farm, and is currently studying at Cambridge University