What the Butler saw - or did he?

Sir Robin Butler's role in the Aitken affair should make Labour rethink Whitehall's top job, says David Walker
Among those to whom Jonathan Aitken lied and lied again was Sir Robin Butler, Whitehall's head prefect.

Thank goodness there are some gents left. Sir Robin (Harrow and University College) is a toff. Isn't it to his credit that, chap to chap, the Cabinet Secretary should have believed Aitken, another toff (Eton and Christ Church)?

Alternatively, Sir Robin's role in the Aitken affair is clinching evidence that, at the very heart of the British state, most nights it's amateur hour. If the Cabinet Secretary, the impresario of Britain's still vast intelligence-gathering networks - the man who sees the communications intercepts, who knows just which members of British legations in Paris and Geneva let alone Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are spies - couldn't have the Aitken story double-checked, then those ornate and expensive Thameside palaces occupied by MI5 and MI6 might as well be flogged off tomorrow.

Are we seriously to believe that Sir Robin did not have the wit or the capacity to ask Stella Rimington of the Security Service - on old girl terms you understand - about Jonathan Aitken's business dealings at home and abroad? It's not, despite Aitken, a matter of corruption. After 11 years under Thatcher and Major, Sir Robin's moral antennae do seem somewhat underused. Yet the Cabinet Secretary's office remains a sleaze-free zone in the conventional senses of money and sex. And don't imagine that there aren't opportunities: even bureaucratic power can be an aphrodisiac.

The question is one of competence. Of course Sir Robin ensures Cabinet papers are printed and that the committees function - look how smoothly the machine has handled the transition to Labour. It's to do with the nature of his job. The truth is no one ever knows just how well or badly Whitehall's top people function because no one - except Sir Robin and cronies privately - ever asks. As for Sir Robin, questions about how well he does are out of the question since no official job description exists for the role, let alone performance reviews. The new Labour government, however, has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change all that. Sir Robin is due to retire at the end of December. This gives Tony Blair the opportunity to stop and think about just what it needs at the centre of the centre.

Sir Robin doubles up as head of the civil service. So he is also notional manager of the Whitehall machine and ethical arbitrator for conscious- stricken colleagues. Is he qualified? He has - this from his close colleagues - few skills as a personnel manager; the senior civil service is largely unmanaged.

Among his myriad jobs, Peter Mandelson is supposed to be contributing to Blair's thinking about the machine - as well he might, since Mandelson's own role is vitiated by the lack of clarity between the respective roles of professional government business manager and head of the machine. But will Mandelson even ask the right questions? So far no attempt has been made to bring in outsiders or look overseas; experienced civil servants outside the loop have not been consulted.

The case for splitting Sir Robin's job is strong. Civil servants at the centre desperately need managing, motivating and modernising - and if in these straitened circumstances that task needs combining with the permanent secretaryship of one of the mainstream departments, nobody I've talked to in Whitehall sees the least difficulty with making that arrangement work.

Because Whitehall is such a cosy place, some say there is no point in even pretending there are "objective" answers to how Cabinet decisions should be reported and progress chased through the machine. No, it's all a matter of the tiny group of personalities "in the frame" - the kind of people deemed to have the right kind of Whitehall background. Thus Sir Robin's replacement is just a matter of choosing, to name the obvious official candidates, between the top men at the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and Environment, Transport and the Regions.

It should not be this way. Sir Robin has been fighting hard to ensure that he is replaced in his joint role - so Buggins will get his turn. Labour may not care about openness - or even efficiency and effectiveness - in the central machinery of the state. But it surely cares for its own skin. Its success - its capacity to distinguish itself from its sleazy predecessor - surely depends on rejecting Sir Robin Butler's advice.