The more the leaks the worse the government

'If Mr Blair wants his ministers to think in private, he must prevent them from lying in public'
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The Independent Online

Leaks make good reading. It is always interesting to be offered glimpses of the inner working of government, as in the argument between Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon over the deployment of British troops in Macedonia in a European Union force. Nor is it easy for the present set of Mr Blair's ministers to complain when they are leaked against. As they shamelessly exploited and encouraged such leaks during their time in opposition, they deserve no sympathy now.

Which is not to say that leaks are a good thing. They may interest the public; this does not mean that they are in the public interest. Any organisation needs to be able to think in private. If it cannot do so without such thoughts being instantly publicised, they will simply do less thinking and what they will do will be of lower quality. We cannot afford that with this government.

But the incidence of leaks also tells us a lot about the organisation involved. Not many leaks come from successful outfits where staff morale is high. It tends to be the chaotic set-ups with widespread distrust between employers and employed which spill their secrets – as is now happening with the Blair Government.

I have been interested in civil service matters for more than 25 years. Government is a stressful business; relations between ministers and officials have often gone through difficult interludes. But nothing on the scale of recent events. Disillusion and demoralisation in the Civil Service is much worse than I have ever known it; much worse, I suspect, than it has ever been. Many civil servants no longer trust their ministerial bosses.

This is the Government's fault. With a few exceptions, the current set of ministers has never been able to get the best out of its officials: has never appreciated the merits of the Civil Service. Anyone who wants to understand the Civil Service should begin by forgetting Yes, Minister. Its portrayal of the Civil Service is amusing and memorable; it is also misleading. Anyone tempted to castigate Sir Humphrey for Machiavellian deviousness should first consider the ministerial qualities of Jim Hacker. A hapless figure who never knew his own mind and stumbled from one improvisation to the next, he needed Sir Humphrey on constant red alert to rescue him from the consequences of his cock-ups.

Good civil servants do not want ministers like Jim Hacker. They are like horses; they appreciate a strong rider. They flourish under ministers who know how to lead their departments. Civil servants will forgive rude ministers, as long as they are effective. Officials will not mind working long hours, as long as they are purposeful hours. A minister who knows what he wants to do, has thought through how to do it, and who has the clarity, force of personality and political weight to secure his colleagues' – and No 10's – agreement will command his officials' loyalty even if he sometimes forgets to say please and thank you.

That is why many civil servants came to respect Margaret Thatcher. They did not necessarily sympathise with her views, but they were impressed by the determination with which she tried to turn them into policies. Equally, some of the respect was reciprocated, even though she exercised the privilege of her sex when it came to the Civil Service, and refused to align the particular with the general. To the end of her premiership, she had never approved of the Civil Service as a whole, but she greatly admired many individual civil servants, many of whom enjoyed the stimulus of working for her.

Civil servants will not resent a driving minister. But a polite, easy-going one will quickly exasperate them, if they realise that he is wasting their time. A minister who can never make his mind up, who blunders around complex problems without ever understanding them, who has no hope of persuading a cabinet committee, and who is only hanging on to his job until the next reshuffle, is the kind of minister who makes civil servants despair, because they realise that time spent serving him is time wasted.

A desire to see an end to time wasting explains the private enthusiasm with which so many civil servants welcomed the Blair government in 1997. Given that the Tory party was determined to destroy itself, the Major administration had become less of a government than a prime ministerial Calvary. Though it still had many first rate ministers, it had lost all political authority.

So, much of the Civil Service was looking forward to a fresh government with renewed authority. A significant number of officials were also sympathetic to what they understood as Blairism: a Europhile government that would deliver first-class public services within a framework of sound economic management. In general, the Civil Service was looking forward to working for its new masters.

Hence the depth of the subsequent disillusion. Civil servants quickly discovered that many ministers were much less likeable than their public image had suggested, and that their disagreeable qualities were exacerbated by the fear of Number 10. Mr Blair appeared to distrust many of his own ministers; he certainly allowed them no scope for independent action. Their job was to produce the right headlines.

This distorted their relationship with their departments. Far more interested in press coverage than in policy work, they insisted on politicising their press offices – and then tried to subordinate the rest of the department into the press office. When Mrs Thatcher enquired whether civil servants were "one of us", she was trying to find out whether they shared her commitment to radical free enterprise reform, which is a respectable objective. But Labour ministers' loyalty tests for civil servants refer only to the ability to spin the media: not a respectable objective.

Nor are Labour ministers interested in the truth: truth is what they can get away with. The PM himself has shown a contempt for the honour and integrity of his Government. It did not matter to him whether Stephen Byers had lied, as long as enough Labour MPs were prepared to support him. Nor did it seem to matter to Mr Blair that Stephen Byers is a dunce. Not only is he a hardened recidivist when it comes to giving explanations of conduct which are then contradicted by the written record. BMW/Rover, Railtrack, the London Underground: everything he has touched, he has Mottramed up.

To many civil servants, the Martin Sixsmith affair was the final insult. This may not explain the latest leak, but it is likely to mean that more leaks will follow as civil servants lose all faith in their political masters and decide that the time has come to expose their dishonesty.

Mr Blair can do only one thing to bring a halt to the leaks. If he wants his ministers to be able to think in private, he will have to prevent them from lying in public.

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