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UK Politics

Exclusive: An uncivil end? PM’s frustrations could see Whitehall head ousted

Civil service boss Sir Bob Kerslake blamed for slow pace of reform, in role described as ‘impossible’ by critics

David Cameron is trying to force the head of Britain’s civil service out of his job because of his frustration at the slow pace of Whitehall reform, The Independent has learnt.

Sir Bob Kerslake is understood to have been told that the Prime Minister would like to replace him in the role he has held for less than two years, after failing to successfully implement the Government’s civil service reforms. It is unclear if Sir Bob will remain in his other job as Permanent Secretary in the Department of Communities or leave Government altogether.

It is believed that the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood has been asked by Mr Cameron to draw up a shortlist of possible successors. In a significant break with tradition, the successful candidate could come from outside the civil service.

Although Mr Cameron has told some of his Cabinet ministers he wants to oust Sir Bob, the timing of the planned shake-up is not known. Insiders suggest the move has met resistance, with some saying Sir Bob is “refusing to go quietly”.

Sir Bob’s removal would increase concerns among other senior civil servants that the Government is taking an increasingly tough line on mandarins who fail to implement the Government’s agenda, and that ministers are attempting to “politicise” the civil service. He resisted some aspects of the reform plan – and helped thwart attempts by Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude to give ministers the final say over the appointment of their permanent secretaries.

However, political sources claim he was out of his depth in his role as Head of the Civil Service, and did not have the clout to impose the Government’s will on other permanent secretaries. But some critics admit  added it was “mission impossible” for Sir Bob to effectively try and do two jobs, and his successor would need to be a full-time appointment. “Doing two jobs would have been too much for anyone,” said one insider. “Heywood [as Cabinet Secretary] became the PM’s policy chief and left all the bad and difficult stuff like civil service reform to Kerslake. He also had a department to run and he was swamped.”

In a progress report on the Whitehall reforms this week, Sir Bob and Mr Maude wrote in a joint foreward:  “We have learnt the importance of moving forward as a unified Civil Service, and that there should be no hiding place for those failing to deliver.”

Ministers announced plans to beef up their private offices – with many more appointments from outside the civil service. Ministers will be able to hand-pick staff – from both existing officials and new political advisers – that could, trade unions warn, lead to a system in which civil servants are loyal to their political masters rather than the taxpayer.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “This story is untrue. Bob Kerslake and Francis Maude launched the Government’s “One Year On” document on Wednesday, a plan outlining further reforms to the Civil Service. The Prime Minister fully supports the work Bob Kerslake is doing as Head of the Civil Service.”

Sir Bob seemed set up to fail in reforming the civil service

Sir Bob Kerslake’s short tenure as the Government’s first ever “Head of the Civil Service” has never been a happy one. He was given the job almost two years ago when Gus O’Donnell retired as Cabinet Secretary and David Cameron decided to split his role in two. Sir Jeremy Heywood was given the job of advising the Prime Minister while Sir Bob was to “run” the Civil Service and implement Tory plans to reform Whitehall.

But Sir Bob was told to combine his new role with his other job as Permanent Secretary in the Department of Communities. Unlike Sir Jeremy, his access to Mr Cameron was limited. Some unfairly blamed him for the slow delivery of their plans.

But it was impossible for him to make the role work. The Civil Service is not one untied body – permanent secretaries and departments operate as individual fiefdoms. Sir Bob was given the task of making them implement reforms they did not believe in. Some senior civil servants stymied him, believing – wrongly – that Mr Cameron did not care enough about the plans to force them through. But he did. When he appreciated the paucity of progress that had been made he decided to act. A decent man in an impossible position is paying the price for others’ failings.

Oliver Wright