First blood to the Civil Service

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The Independent Online
It was Mr Blair's first clash with the Civil Service, and he blinked first. The conflict was over the role to be played by Jonathan Powell, whom the Prime Minister wished to make his principal private secretary, a job which has always been held by a civil servant. Mr Powell, who had been poached by Mr Blair from the British embassy in Washington to join him as his chief of staff in opposition, was thought by the new administration to be ideal for the role of "gatekeeper to Number 10".

But Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, demurred. The principal private secretary has a quasi-constitutional role; liaising, for example, with Buckingham Palace and the Cabinet Secretary during the transition of power following an election. His civil service status acts as a check on Downing Street. When civil servants issue instructions they know that, if they prove to be less than neutral, their reputation and career could be harmed. Political appointees are not so constrained.

So a compromise was reached. Mr Powell will not become principal private secretary, but as Chief of Staff his desk will occupy the same position at No 10 as that of the current principal private secretary, Alex Allan. When Mr Allan switches job shortly, a replacement will be appointed from the Civil Service, but with limited responsibilities.

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