Outlook: Wise old bird, but not New Labour

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NO SURPRISE in the departure of Sir Terence Burns as permanent secretary at the Treasury, except in so far as it took him so long to call it a day. Ever since that embarrassing fly-on-the-wall documentary about Gordon Brown's first months in Government, it has been apparent that the Treasury's top civil servant would have about as much influence on the Chancellor and his policies as the nightwatchman at Marks & Spencer, Marble Arch.

Sir Terence was regarded, if not quite as an enemy, certainly as a potential obstruction by Mr Brown and his inner circle of special advisers when they swept into the Treasury a year ago determined to be done with the old and bring in the new. The policy had already been decided by outsiders, and they were not going to have it undermined and sat on by the Sir Humphrey Applebys of the Treasury. As a consequence, Sir Terence was marginalised and his advise often ignored.

This is a shame, for Sir Terence is a wise old bird and although Mr Brown has had as promising a start to his chancellorship as any since the war, Sir Terence's guidance might have saved Mr Brown from those banana skins that have come his way, such as the continuing fiasco of the Government's Individual Savings Account. All the same, this is the way of the world and it is hard, even for civil servants as seasoned as Sir Terence, to make the leap between administrations. And if the truth be known, even Mr Brown's predecessor, Kenneth Clarke, was never quite as happy with Sir Terence as he pretended. Behind the scenes, there were said to have been numerous run ins.

So no surprise at his departure. More of a surprise is his replacement, Andrew Turnbull, whose CV includes stints as principal private secretary to both John Major and Margaret Thatcher. The second permanent secretary at the Treasury, Steve Robson, also has strong links with the previous government. He was the Treasury's chief engineer for a very substantial number of privatisations in the 1980s and 1990s. Both the number one and two positions at the Treasury have thus become occupied by men who while obviously consummate professionals, could also reasonably be described as Thatcherites, on paper at least. But then we are all New Labour now, aren't we?