Britain’s two most senior civil servants have been accused of “prostituting” their office and “deserting political neutrality” by writing a fulsome public tribute to Baroness Thatcher following her death.
In a fierce attack MPs accused Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, and Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil service, of wading into controversy by penning an article praising Lady Thatcher as the “best kind of boss”.
A Labour member of the Commons Public Administration Committee, said the piece was a “clear breach of the traditional neutrality of the civil service” while the committee’s Conservative chairman questioned whether they had been “wise to enter this controversy”.
However Sir Jeremy defended their decision to write the piece saying he “didn’t think it was a political article at all” adding “it didn’t make a comment one way or the other about her politics”. “The article was about the civil service’s relationship with Margaret Thatcher as a person, as a human being,” he said.
In their article, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph, the two men wrote that in contrast to her public persona Lady Thatcher was a keen supporter of the civil service's “values of impartiality and integrity”
“Contrary to what many have suggested,” they said, "Mrs Thatcher never sought to staff No 10 with 'Yes men' or civil servants who shared her politics.
“Above all, she valued civil servants who did not simply defend the status quo (and) who could back up their arguments with clear evidence.”
They then noted that she would even “nourish her civil servants with home-cooked shepherd's pie whenever they were working late”.
“To the country she was an Iron Lady, to those who worked with her she was a kind and considerate boss,” they concluded.
But the veteran Labour MP Paul Flynn demanded Sir Jeremy apologise for the “overtly political nature of the article” which also quoted Mrs Thatcher’s “radical tax reforms, the introduction of Right to Buy, a major overhaul of industrial relations law and the world's first privatisation programme”.
“The main controversy in the country, which may have passed you by, is the verdict on Margaret Thatcher’s time in Government. It divides the country and it divides this House,” he said.
“You wrote an article which was entirely sycophantic about the role of Lady Thatcher and laid no kind of criticism whatsoever.
“It was clear breach of the tradition and neutrality of the civil service,” he said.
Sir Jeremy said he did not think it was “a fair characterisation of the article at all” and that the article had been about “the civil service’s relationship with Margaret Thatcher as a person”.
But Mr Flynn countered that she had sacked 171,000 civil servants which “was not as popular as the shepherd’s pie she served to them late at night”.
Sir Jeremy reiterated that the article had not been intended to either “praise or attack her policies”.
Later, before walking out of the committee meeting, Mr Flynn retorted: “You prostituted your high office and deserted your political neutrality.”
But the letter has also attracted criticisms from senior Conservatives. Bernard Jenkin, a Tory MP who chairs the committee and was a friend of the late Lady Thatcher asked: “In retrospect, do you really think this was wise to enter this controversy?” he said.
Earlier the Tory MP Aidan Burley said: “Jeremy Heywood and Bob Kerslake would be wise to concentrate on their day jobs.
“It beggars belief that they should take it upon themselves to draft such a sycophantic article – have they not got more important things to do, like inform the decisions of the current Prime Minister?”
Even senior Government ministers are said to have private reservations about the wisdom of writing the article. One Government source said “eyebrows had been raised” when the piece was published.
• In a separate development the Government has announced it will be conducting an internal investigation into the arrangements for Lady Thatcher’s funeral. Although the ceremony passed off smoothly some invitees had to have the invitations couriered over to them – because of delays in administration. Some were also delivered by civil servants who lived near-by.