26 November 2019
Referee Walks Off
By J R Thomas
The first round of the Civil Service Cup, played two weeks ago, resulted in the relegation of former star forward, Dom “Mekon” Cummings, a man often seemingly playing on both right and left wings (but never in the centre). But it was nothing as to the outcome of the second round last weekend, where after numerous calls of “foul” and “bias”, the referee, Alex Allan, sent himself off and said he would refuse to play again. This follows allegations that the captain of the touring team, Boris “Classico” Johnson, said he would not accept the referee’s decision and was rewriting the rule book to give a greater chance to his side. Classico said he was following the example of the American game where the losing side set the rules and indeed the score.
But football is a simple game compared with the current series of matches of the Civil Service versus the government. Britain of course has a long tradition that the administration of government policy is carried by politically disinterested career civil servants, whose job is to do politician’s wishes, albeit after informing, advising, and if appropriate, warning ministers. This works fine as long as the politicians and the civil servants remember who is supposed to do what, and, more fundamentally, are agreed on the base values of how democratic government works.
But in recent years those rules have become somewhat disregarded, and as in so many things, the lead-up to and fall out from the Brexit referendum has widened the cracks in a previously smooth operation. It is inevitable that civil servants have opinions and political views, the senior ranks of the service in particular being populated by highly intelligent and well educated persons who are used to exercising a great deal of influence on the political direction of the country. Fifty years ago most senior civil servants would have been characterised as leaning to the right of the political spectrum; now it is the opposite, with the majority probably of a moderate left orientation. More broadly, civil servants tend to think that government is good, that within bounds more government is even better, that most voters are not terribly interested in or informed about politics, that Remainers are superior to Leavers; they are, one might say, Guardian readers rather than Daily Mail readers (there must be a reason why so many civil service jobs are advertised in the Guardian). This should not matter that much. Except… Except when it comes to matters of fundamental principle; then a civil servant charged with (just to take an example) dealing with Britain’s withdrawal from the EU might struggle considerably with their conscience and as to how they see their duty. Or, to give another example, faced with demands for fundamental reform as to how the civil service is structured and managed.
Which is where we must once again meet Mr Cummings. His job, in his lair in Downing Street, was to fundamentally reform the civil service. Brexit was to be a temporary assignment, and Covid19 mitigation became a distraction, but Dom’s Mission Impossible type task was to cut the size of government bureaucracy, and dramatically so, whilst making its change management skills appreciably greater, its mind set more radical and intellectually diverse, and its cost base much smaller. What shape that might have taken we don’t know (though it certainly involved moving swathes of Whitehall jobs into the job hungry north of England). We might yet find out though; Dom profoundly believes that one of the great impediments to change and growth in the UK is the mind-set and vast cost of its civil service. His ejection from the Prime Minister’s side does not mean that his views have changed – or that his role has ceased.
And if Dom needs an example of what drives him to anger, it is the recent ruckus in the Home Office. Just in case you do not recall, in February this year Sir Philip Rutnam (educated Dulwich College, Trinity Hall Cambridge, Harvard, aged 55), the head of the Home Office’s civil service, resigned and accused the Home Secretary, Priti Patel (educated Westfield Technical College, Keele and Essex Universities, aged 48), of a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him. This said Sir Philip, included shouting and swearing at him and other staff and amounted to “blatant bullying”. Poor Sir Philip was obviously not a man who had worked in the City of London, and had presumably never been in Gordon Brown’s employ, (Mr Brown not being noted for his calm quiet ways and gentle cups of tea to resolve differences). An enquiry was then set up, led by the civil service’s head of ethics, Sir Alex Allan (educated Harrow, Clare College Cambridge, aged 69). Sir Alex reported last week, saying that Ms Patel’s conduct on occasion “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying” – citing outbreaks of shouting and swearing, and finding that she had breached the ministerial code, even if unintentionally. Sir Alex also said that the civil service had on various occasions not responded as it should have to the Home Secretary’s requests and requirements, which no doubt has been noted and underlined twice in Mr Cummings’ notebook.
To all this Mr Johnson, who having worked in a newspaper office is probably used to examples of shouting, swearing, and even throwing, said that he did not require Ms Patel’s resignation. Sir Alex then resigned. Cue outrage, calls for widespread ministerial beheadings, front page fury in the Guardian, etc, etc. Except Ms Patel had prepared for this. She apologised profoundly and elegantly to anybody whose feelings had been hurt by her , resisting the temptation to giggle and add “public school wimps”. Her “friends” (politicians are always blessed with well informed and chatty friends) gave numerous briefings of instances where the Home Secretary’s civil service team had talked down to her, had resisted clear instructions, and had reversed some of her edicts when she left meetings. (Further notes in Mr Cumming’s notebook, no doubt, more underlining.) More friends (Ms Patel seems to have a lot), referred to instances of racism and sexism in the ranks of the Home Office.
As the full report by Sir Alex has not been released we cannot be certain precisely went on. But from all those busy friends – though Sir Philip does not call on his mates, he does the briefing himself – we can probably form a picture of an ambitious right wing hard line minister in a hurry confronted by liberal leftward leaning civil servants who just perhaps felt they knew best.
It is of course never nice to shout and swear. Sir Keir Starmer (so many knighthoods have been handed out it is amazing there are any left), who has led an astonishingly sheltered life it seems, said apropos of all this “It is hard to imagine another workplace in the UK where this behaviour would be condoned by those at the top.” Well, Sir Keir, when you have a few minutes just let me take you through a few British workplaces. No, it shouldn’t happen, but when people are frustrated and angry it does, and most of us recognise that if the boss is shouting or (tush! ) swearing, the fault may be as much with us as with them. Why, even in the refined and eloquent arenas of the football field, just once in a while, a gesture, a word, a raising of the voice, may slip out. The answer is to move on. Which all involved in this mini-farce should be doing. Not least, because when Dom gets going, the shouting and swearing from Whitehall is going to be something special.
Tile photo: Nathan Shively on Unsplash