Dominic Lawson: It's no longer 'Yes, Minister' but 'Not Now, Minister'

Demoralisation of the civil service has evolved rapidly into treachery
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The Independent Online

The BBC's Yes, Minister was perhaps the greatest of British television sitcoms, deserving of all the awards bestowed on it; but it was guilty of establishing in the public's mind the myth that civil servants do not welcome strong ministers – or indeed, a strong prime minister.

The truth is the opposite, however inspired was the idea of reinventing PG Wodehouse's immortal duo of Jeeves, the brilliant servant, and Wooster, the intellectually-challenged master, against a Whitehall backdrop: in real life, permanent secretaries want to work for decisive and, yes, courageous secretaries of state. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the office of a ditherer; this applies as much to the relationship between civil servant and minister as it does to any other field of professional endeavour.

Thus it is that the ranks of Britain's senior public servants are as fed up and frustrated as they have ever been: Gordon Brown's inability as Prime Minister to take quick decisions, on even minor matters, caused the entire machinery of government to grind almost to halt from the day he moved into 10 Downing Street. The rapid departure from government of three of his four so called "Goats" – as in, laughably, government of all the talents – is itself a testament to the demoralisation of the administrative class.

Demoralisation has rapidly evolved into something more like treachery – at least if you are seeing it from the viewpoint of the Government benches. Never before have leaders of the armed forces taken to the radio and television studios to vent their frustration with the elected government. Understandable as their irritation might with be with Mr Brown's lack of feel for matters military, and appalling as the Ministry of Defence is at almost everything, their behaviour verges on the improper.

They have, however, been emboldened by other public servants' open challenge to the Government. Last month the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, told the Mayor of London's annual banquet for the City of London, with Chancellor Darling sitting two places away, that the Government's plans for reform of the financial system were inadequate, at least so far as the Bank's powers were concerned: all this on national TV.

What we are witnessing here in part is the paying back of old scores. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown had regarded the defence budget as the least of his priorities – and had made little attempt to disguise it. He had also left Mervyn King out to dry for months over the matter of his reappointment as Governor for a second term; and when the credit crunch first hit, New Labour did not shrink from briefing against King, in the desperate attempt to give the public someone to blame other than themselves.

Last month too, Lord Butler, the former head of the Civil Service, stood up in the House of Lords to condemn Gordon Brown's decision to hold the Iraq War inquiry in private as "Putting political interests ahead of the national interest". Remarkably, the press were able to inform readers ahead of the debate that Butler was going to make these devastating remarks: perhaps the clearest indication that the mandarinate were now briefing savagely against New Labour. Still, since New Labour had been uniquely prepared – unlike all previous governments – to blame anonymous civil servants when things went wrong, they can hardly be seen as innocent victims: as I say, this is payback.

It is all a far cry from 1997, when, on the day after New Labour's crushing general election victory, civil servants stood on the steps of the Treasury applauding Gordon Brown as he entered the building. One explanation of this unprecedented welcome was that the Civil Service were excited beyond measure at the prospect of working for a fresh new Government with an unrivalled mandate, after years of frustration dealing with a divided and exhausted Conservative administration.

There is a more cynical explanation, put to me by a veteran of such matters: the Treasury were terrified that they would be seen by Brown as hopelessly infected with Tory sympathisers and thought that their public show of acclaim would soften his heart against them. If that was their hope, they were disappointed. Brown and his then special adviser Ed Balls wasted no time in freezing out the Permanent Secretary, Terry Burns, and treated old Treasury hands with contempt. The corollary of this was that those civil servants who wanted to be "in" with the Brown team had to become much closer to New Labour than is healthy for any supposedly impartial civil service.

Thus for example, Terry Burns' successor as Permanent Secretary, Gus O'Donnell, published a book jointly with Ed Balls with a glowing foreword by none other than Gordon Brown. Its subtitle, "Towards Greater Economic Stability", now hangs round the necks of its joint authors, like a necklace of stinking fish. Similarly, while Lord Butler now lets it be known how New Labour's method of rule by media-spin betrayed the best traditions of British governance, it was he who signed off on the authorisation of Alastair Campbell to have executive control over civil servants.

The behaviour of Butler and O' Donnell is easily explained. They were in awe of the crushing majorities which New Labour had gained in its first two election victories, and like many others in public life, probably assumed that they could write off the idea of a Tory government returning in their lifetimes. In other words, Labour was the only game in town, and likely to remain so.

That view has had to be hastily revised; so now senior civil servants are losing no opportunity to oil up to the Conservative shadow Cabinet team, and, to the fury of Mr Brown, are enthusiastically taking part in briefings to help prepare the Tories for government. It is true that this is no more than normal practice in the months leading up to a general election, on the grounds that the official Opposition must have some understanding of how the machinery works; but there is also no doubt that this time civil servants are thinking very much about their own careers.

They desperately want to impress the people they see as their bosses from 2010 onwards, and are treating Mr Brown's Government as a man does his wife, when he has decided to divorce in favour of his mistress. It's just the way of the world – and politics is nothing if not worldly.

Labour's oldest hands have seen all this before. Bernard Donoughue, a minister under Blair, recently published his memoir of running the Number 10 Policy Unit during the period of the last Labour prime minister to be voted out of office, Jim Callaghan. Fully four months before the electoral axe fell, Donoughue recorded in his diary: "The civil service machine has withdrawn. Few papers are coming through... Merlyn Rees [the Home Secretary] was complaining yesterday that when he was making a big statement on the present crisis, there were no Home Office civil servants in his box. They had deserted him and gone home. Whitehall has decided this Government is already beaten."

Now it has decided the same about the Brown Government. In this sense, at least, Yes Minister got it absolutely right: Politicians are temporary; Permanent Secretaries are, well, permanent.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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