How ministers are mastering Sir Humphrey

labour and whitehall
Cabinet ministers in Brighton for this week's Labour Party conference have revealed ways in which they are snapping the bonds that civil servants have tried to impose on them.

One minister told The Independent that he had asked for a meeting to be arranged to take a particular decision, at which he wanted a couple of other ministers, expecting that they would each have one or two officials in attendance. Instead, he arrived at the meeting to be confronted by between 30 and 35 officials. "It was like a Labour conference fringe meeting," he said scornfully. A further, smaller meeting was called and a decision was quickly reached.

The same man noted that not all Cabinet colleagues were so decisive. "Some review, some decide," he said in a contemptuous reference to the way in which some ministers handled their arrival in departments by launching reviews rather than getting on with the job.

Other ministers have been marked down as people who stick rigidly to their departmental briefs, the notes written by civil servants that are supposed to guide them through inter-departmental negotiations in Cabinet committee. The crib-sheets tell ministers that they must not disclose their hand to colleagues, particularly the Treasury.

But Labour ministers have been cutting through the culture of Whitehall secrecy by passing on their departmental notes to their colleagues, enabling more informed decisions to be made - though not always in their own narrow departmental interest.

One reason for this government culture-change is that ministers have become accustomed in Opposition to a very different way of working. They are operating an alternative Labour network, a tight-knit circle of friends who trust each other, who work behind the backs of hidebound officials and brief-bound colleagues.

Critics see overtones of Margaret Thatcher's "one of us" culture being repeated, and a politicisation of the Civil Service being pursued, as similar networks of "New Whitehall" officials are identified across departments, with Labour ministers recruiting co-operative civil servants to the cause.

Peter Hennessy, professor of history at London University and an expert in cabinet government, says that what is happening could amount to a "Whitehall revolution by stealth". But he adds: "One has to remember, at the risk of sounding like a Permanent Secretary, that the Civil Service has this great power to sit it out and then to return, like an automatic pilot, to a slightly changed version of the status quo."

Ministers do not complain that their officials have been suborned by 18 years of Conservative government; they are concerned about the efficiency and effectiveness of the machine. They argue that, Labour having been elected by a landslide, officials are there to help carry out the party's programme. If they get in the way, they will be pushed aside or purged.

That process has already started, with the departure of a number of senior figures from some departments. Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, is also demanding a "raised game" from the Government Information Service, the Civil Service press officers.

A number of ministers describe the weekly meetings of Cabinet as perfunctory and mundane. The real business of government is being carried out in key cabinet committees where men such as Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, push through fast-track decisions.

The Civil Service machine might normally offer the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer one formal diary meeting a week. In practice, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who have lived cheek by jowl for many years, frequently hold meetings in the early morning and late evening without officials present - which means no minutes can be taken and the Civil Service is bypassed.

Last week, there were no civil servants present when Jack Cunningham, Minister for Agriculture, and Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, agreed that they should ask the Prime Minister to set up a judicial inquiry to track down those to blame for the introduction of BSE into cattle and the human food chain.

Other ministers, such as John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, have been known openly to repudiate the advice given to them by their most senior officials. Mr Prescott was told that he must not visit the scene of the recent Southall rail crash. He went.

But that does not mean that civil servants are being regarded with general disdain. When Gordon Brown arrived in the Treasury on 2 May he pulled out of his pocket a three-page document and handed it to Sir Terence Burns, his Permanent Secretary, giving him Labour's plans for Bank of England independence on interest rates. It took a team of leading officials just days - in some cases without sleep - to implement the rush plan, with all the secrecy that was required.

In his speech to the Labour conference on Tuesday, Tony Blair gently chided officials with an indirect warning about their behaviour. "They're not in the habit of calling anything a good idea," he told delegates, "which given the last 18 years is hardly surprising.

"When they describe a proposal as `ambitious', or, even worse, `interesting', what they really mean is they think it was a stupid idea, dreamt up at the last minute for the manifesto.

"When they describe it as `challenging', they mean there's not a hope in hell of making it work. And when they say of a policy that `it really is quite a brave proposal, Prime Minister', it means they've got the doctor outside waiting to sign the certificates ..."

It was said afterwards that Mr Blair had been short of a joke or two for his speech. But the writing was also being scrawled on the wall for the officials back in Whitehall: co-operate or go.