Just a storm in a Whitehall teacup

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Television viewers on Wednesday night were given a rare treat: the delicious episode of Yes, Prime Minister in which Sir Humphrey fights to see off James Hacker's solitary political adviser - a battle summed up in this exchange between a plaintive Prime Minister and a soothing Cabinet Secretary:

Hacker: "I need someone, Humphrey, who's on my side."

Humphrey: "But I'm on your side. The whole Civil Service is on your side. Six hundred and eighty thousand of us. Isn't that enough to be going on with?"

There is just an overtone of this epic struggle in the fracas over the recent appointment of extra political advisers, including Jonathan Powell, the new prime minister's Chief of Staff. Jonathan Hill, a former political secretary to John Major, complains of Tony Blair's "stormtroopers". More purist Whitehall watchers such as Professor Hennessy murmur the word "sleaze". And the idea gets about that, what with that Alastair Campbell becoming his press secretary, Tony Blair is quietly, sinisterly, "politicising" the Civil Service.

That is almost exactly the reverse of the truth. He has not only been more scrupulous in dealing with Whitehall than arguably he need have been. He has also set a precedent which should ensure that in future the Civil Service is rather less politicised than it has been in recent memory.

The Blair team had planned for some time that there should be someone new inside No 10. The type of person was described in the 1996 book by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle (now a newly recruited member of the beefed-up No 10 Policy Unit) as a "non-ministerial political manager inside No 10, a 'straight' player whose job is to bring together all the political and non-political sources of prime ministerial advice and ensure that the Prime Minister's political strategy is kept on track".

That is sensible. Every prime minister has found in the past that there was a problem in directing the rest of the government without a department of his or her own, and with the main sources of civil service policy locked up within the departments themselves. Powell was the obvious candidate. He is an ex-diplomat who knows the Whitehall machine. Since it was clear that he would inevitably subsume some of the traditional role of the principal private secretary, there was a further question about whether he should in fact be the Principal Private Secretary, who in modern times has been a career civil servant.

That idea was strongly, if politely, resisted by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service. There was, nevertheless, a strong argument in in its favour. The PPS has come to be accepted in Whitehall as the PM's main gatekeeper. A senior member of John Major's staff had been convinced before the election that Powell should be made PPS if Labour won. There was nothing written down to prevent it. In the end, however, the Blair team accepted that it would be inappropriate for Powell to take responsibility for small but sensitive issues such as honours, relations with the Opposition, and the transition between two administrations. What sealed the compromise was that it seemed to work: it became clear that Powell could sit in the same office as Alex Allan - the outgoing, Grateful Dead-loving PPS whom Blair admires for the way he handled the transition, without demarcation disputes.

Powell will nevertheless be PPS in all but name. The Allan replacement is likely to be an existing member of the private office staff. And why not? Compare the case of his brother, Sir Charles Powell - who wielded untold power on behalf of Margaret Thatcher, stayed in his private office job much longer than normal, and yet was theoretically supposed to be an independent, utterly non-political civil servant. It was perfectly sensible, for example, for Sir Charles to act as the link between Margaret Thatcher and the group who prepared the Tory manifesto for the 1989 European elections. After all, he knew her mind on Europe better than anyone. Whether it was entirely compatible with the purist view of a neutral, non-political civil service, is another matter. Campbell and Jonathan Powell, by contrast, are set in lights for what they are: transparently political appointments, ratified as such by Order in Council.

Sir Robin is an impartial, straight dealer, if a natural, small "c" conservative about the machinery of government. He has certainly bent over backwards to ensure a smooth transition. But his over-zealous champions should remember that even he has had a hard time ensuring that his multiple role of boss of the Civil Service, secretary to the Cabinet, and the PM's most senior adviser, never strayed out of neutral waters.

Was it so wise, for example, for him to carry out those limited inquiries into the allegations against Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken, rather than insist they be done by the Chief Whip? Or to sanction the extraordinary spin operation by government press officers after the Scott inquiry? By making the political jobs overtly political, it protects, rather than undermines, the party-political neutrality of the Civil Service.

Blair has gone out of his way, in a memorandum to Sir Robin, to say how much he intends to value robust policy advice from the Whitehall mandarins. But he is right to beef up the strength of No 10. The electorate couldn't care less about the intricacies of an overblown Whitehall argument. They will care quite a lot if he is thwarted from carrying out his mandate by not being able to get his way over the departmental baronies and their ministers, when it matters.

When Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman won the 1906 election, in a landslide now routinely compared with 1 May 1997, he appointed three private secretaries. One, the most junior, was a Treasury official. The No 2 had been a working journalist. And the principal private secretary, responsible for relations with other departments and the King, was a man who had stood as a Radical parliamentary candidate in the election, and would take over Sir Henry's seat when the PM died.

And no one batted an eyelid.