David Cameron aides at war with Civil Service in battle of Downing Street

Strategy chief's 'Bungalow Bob' jibe at top mandarin in clash over reforms

Relations between senior civil servants and Downing Street are at an all-time low, with both sides engaged in a bitter blame game over the Government's recent political travails.

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

On Wednesday, Ian Watmore, who was in charge of cutting costs across government departments, quit as Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office. Several Whitehall sources told The Independent he decided to leave after falling out with the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude – with whom he had 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 this summer.

Mr Hilton is said to have walked out of the meeting after seeing Sir Bob'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 Sir Bob as "Bungalow Bob" and suggested he was trying to protect under performing civil servants from reform. Sir Bob is said by his supporters 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, clutching a plastic bag full of oranges. As the meeting went on, Mr Hilton is said to have started "inexpertly" peeling an orange, getting juice all over the "crotch of his brushed cotton shorts".

But Mr Hilton is not the only senior aide around Mr Cameron to have expressed anger at the performance of officials. The Prime Minister's spokeswoman, Gabby Bertin, has been heard to complain at the poor service press offices in Government departments are providing Number 10 in identifying and promoting eye-catching initiatives to help the Government.

But this is dismissed by senior civil servants. They describe the political appointees in Downing Street as "flailing around" with no sense of clear strategy and being led by the latest shifts in polling.

The spats are beginning to filter through to wider Civil Service perceptions. Civil Service World magazine released details this week of a poll of almost 1,400 senior officials which suggested some now felt promotion was being increasing driven by political considerations.

Asked if they believed that people have been appointed to jobs on the basis of their connections within, or experience with, the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats, 55 per cent of civil servants in the Cabinet Office answered Yes. Across Whitehall, civil servants also expressed fears about about being able to provide "impartial, honest and open advice to ministers".

Felling blue? Tories who lost their 'Sir Humphreys'

Michael Gove

The Education Secretary's disagreements with his Permanent Secretary, Sir David Bell, saw the department lose its most senior civil servant last year. Mr Gove is said to have been unhappy about the support he was receiving from officials and about what he believed were leaks orchestrated by pro-Labour staff.

Francis Maude

Reported clashes between the Cabinet Office Minister and his Permanent Secretary, Ian Watmore, saw Mr Watmore quit only six months into the job. Mr Watmore – a former head of the FA – allegedly became "increasingly detached" after being undermined by the appointment of Sir Bob Kerslake as part-time Head of the Civil Service.

George Osborne

The Treasury lost the director of its international department, Nicholas Joicey, earlier this year – although this time it was the prospect of conflict rather than the real thing that led to Joicey leaving his post. The civil servant is married to the Labour shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rachel Reeves, and he quit before his marital status caused him problems with his boss.

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