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Showdown in Whitehall: Sir Humphreys vs ministers

Former mandarins said to be behind attack on reforms to selection of Permanent Secretaries

Ministers have become convinced that former senior civil servants are behind an attack against the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and the head of the Civil Service Sir Bob Kerslake.

The ex-mandarins are said to have become infuriated that the current crop of leaders are failing to defend the Civil Service from an attempt by the Government to politicise it.

At the heart of the row was a decision by Sir Jeremy and Sir Bob to endorse a move by ministers which would have given them a larger say in choosing future permanent secretaries.

At present ministers are consulted about the kind of candidate they want but are not allowed to interview them or choose from a shortlist. But they can veto the selected candidate.

But under plans being put forward by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, this would all change. The Civil Service Commission would still vet and interview candidates – but all those deemed worthy of the role would be seen by ministers who would get the final choice of selection.

This has not gone down well with the old guard. Earlier this week, The Daily Telegraph suggested such a move would be the start of a slippery slope – ending in US-style political appointees.

Sir Bob, it was suggested, who combines his role as head of the Civil Service with that of Permanent Secretary at the Communities Department, was not fully on top of the situation.

One insider was quoted saying: “You have to remember that Bob is only the part-time head of the Civil Service.”

This led to a Government minister standing up in the House of Lords and accusing former senior civil servants of briefing against their successors.

“I felt that the article in the Telegraph this morning, clearly based on some rather hostile briefing by retired civil servants, goes enormously over the top,” said Lord Wallace of Saltaire. “We have held to the principles of political impartiality and we will continue to do so.”

Cabinet Office sources confirmed that ministers believe a concerted campaign was underway to thwart their plans to get a greater say in civil service appointments and that former mandarins were responsible.

“Both Jeremy and Bob are reformers and understand that the relationship between a minister and their permanent secretary is vital for good government,” said one. “But that doesn’t seem to be the view of some former civil servants and they’re doing everything they can to brief against it and them.

“The Civil Service Commission has been responsible for some really poor appointments in the past and we’re going to change things even if it’s not popular with the retired Sir Humphreys.”

David Cameron recently blocked the recommended appointment of the new Permanent Secretary at the Department of Energy – forcing the Commission back to the drawing board. Sources said he would be looking closely at who they put forward to take over at the Home Office. If he is unhappy, they added, the Government would move to change the law to get its way.

But what do the former mandarins themselves say? One senior former civil servant said: “The idea of permanent, politically neutral civil service is a long-standing and important part of our democracy. I think it would be unfortunate if anything was allowed to happen to undermine that.”