No 10 and top civil servants at loggerheads

  • @oliver_wright

Relations between senior civil servants and Downing Street are at an all-time low, with both sides engaged in a bitter blame game.

One source described the atmosphere in Whitehall as "bloody", with officials and politicians blaming each other for the failure to get the Government's message across and clashes over plans for Civil Service reform.

On Wednesday, Ian Watmore, who was in charge of cutting costs across government departments, quit only months after he was appointed Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office. Several Whitehall sources told i he had decided to leave after falling out with the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude – with whom he previously had a good relationship. "It would be fair to say that they used to get on well, but things deteriorated in the last few months and Ian became more and more detached," said one.

"The top of Government is not a pretty place at the moment."

Another source of tension has been disputes between David Cameron's combative head of strategy, Steve Hilton, and the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake. Although he is leaving Downing Street at the end of this week, Mr Hilton has infuriated senior officials by departing in a blizzard of anonymous briefings.

Sir Bob blames Mr Hilton for leaking details of a private meeting they held to discuss plans for Civil Service reform – due to be announced in the next couple of months. Mr Hilton is said to have walked out of the meeting after seeing Mr Kerslake's proposals which were described as "the kind of thing you would expect from a second-rate human resources department".

Mr Hilton is also believed to have referred to Mr Kerslake as "Bungalow Bob" and suggested he was trying to protect underperforming civil servants from reform. Sir Bob is said to have described Mr Hilton's suggestion of cutting the central Civil Service by 90 per cent and outsourcing most of its policy work to think-tanks and the private sector as "nonsense".

Mr Hilton was also accused of being unprofessional, turning up at the meeting in shorts and a T-shirt and clutching a plastic bag full of oranges.