Coffee House

Hostilities deepen in Whitehall Wars

14 January 2013

‘The relationship between my civil servants and me is summed up by trust and understanding. I don’t trust them and they don’t understand me,’ one Secretary of State likes to joke. The quip sums up the current, tense mood in Whitehall.

Today’s Times has done a superb job chronicling just how bad things have got. Many ministers and special advisers feel that they are being made to do huge amounts of work to compensate for the failings og the civil service and being made to carry the can when the permanent bureaucracy messes something up. But before this is dismissed as just griping from ministers who are struggling with mid-term, it is worth noting Tony Blair’s trenchant criticisms of the civil service. He says that it has ‘inherent dysfunctionality’ and that he tells other countries to avoid setting up a Whitehall-style system.

But, I understand that civil servants are pointing journalists to a heads of news meeting held by Craig Oliver last week. It is claimed — and hotly denied, it should be noted — that at this meeting Oliver, the PM’s director of communications, criticised departmental special advisers, saying they left Number 10 to carry the government. Number 10 say that this version of the meeting is simply not accurate and that he was simply encouraging the heads of news to do more on digital and saying that if special advisers objected, he’d happily talk to them. That this meeting is being leaked, though, shows just how bad relations in Whitehall are right now.

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Show comments
  • McRobbie

    The civil service resembles the BBC in the way their chief job is to cover their own failings up, to bury bad news and protect their empire at all costs… and responsibility to ministers isn’t even on their radar. Haywood’s entweasel moment says it all, avoid responsilbility by not asking questions. The procurement disasters of energy, railways, military overspend is entirely down to civil servants, sadly the opposition (both tory and labour when applicable) use these disasters to ask for a ministers head to embarass the government in power…. and the civil service encourages this disingenuous approach, because they can dodge the bullets. Moving civil servants every 3 or 4 years is one of their ploys, no one can be blamed if they are no longer in the line of fire and the head can always point at someone else who is conveniently not there.

    The civil service system does not work and can never work as its currently is set up, the incoming government must have the power to employ senior heads over each department with power and permanent heads of service should all be retired.

  • Hornblower

    What ever happened to the Green Deal?

  • Alefrith

    Having listened to Heywood’s hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil performance over the email inquiry I am surprised that anything gets done at all. He emphatically regarded his actions or lack thereof as completely fulfilling the brief given him even if it meant disregarding any form of common sense reasoning when for example the emails and cctv did not add up he decided to not even bother to ask to look at the police log book. He did however notify the police after the Channel4 expose which to my mind was less compelling than not properly briefing Mitchell or Cameron that further investigation was needed. I may be under a misapprehension but have always assumed the civil service works for and is paid for by the whole country and not for apparatchiks whose sole agenda to reach the top of the pole appears to be don’t make waves, if it’s not part of the question despite it’s relevance ignore it or if it leads in another direction do not under any circumstances do anything about it unless specifically asked to do so. I hope the rest of the Civil Service is not cast from the same mould otherwise we are all truly in the sxxx.

  • barbie

    Its time Whitehall boffins realised politicians are elected to run the country, and the boffins do as they bid. They are there to run Whitehall under the elected Ministers instructions. His department should give the orders, Whitehall obeys. They are servants to the Crown, and as such should hold no aligence to any political party, politicians are elected, and one lot is enough. It seems Ministers are not giving enough instructions, and those who defy them should be brought to book or sacked. These people have far to much power, they shouldn’t have. Since when have boffins run the country. Of course with the interferance from the EU the work overload as been the problem, and Whitehall as given more prominance to the EU laws than domestic laws, that should cease. My advice, ignore EU law and implement our own laws, problem solve.

    • 2trueblue

      Liebore politicised the civil service which explains why No 10 are having trouble.

    • Noa

      But the Departmental Heads and Sir Jeremy, i.e.’GoD’, tell their ministers that they will be in breach of the law and are personally liable to criminal prosecution and the government liable to pay substantial damages for breaking its own laws.

      So regardless of his good intentions, what’s a poor politician to do? It’s a medical fact that, once consigned to Rhoda’s bin, their bollocks can’t be sown back on.

  • Daniel Maris

    This is an index of failure. Just as the German high command were all blaming each other as the fronts crumpled in 1945, so this lot are as well. How many policy u turns have we had? About 35, I seem to remember someone counted. How many policies have been a rip-roaring success, even in the Government’s terms – well I can only think of one: Free Schools.

    It’s a pretty thin record of success and a fat file of failure.

    • HooksLaw

      Hopelessly inept garbage. If you want a record of failure I suggest you read Blair’s memoires followed by Brown’s and then you can try Prescott’s Mandelsons Blunkett’s…

  • Daniel Maris

    So that’ll be Eric Pickles then…

    • HooksLaw

      And by the way just to give you a sleepless night…
      ‘UK recovery on track, OECD data show.
      Britain’s recovery is on track, with the economy in better shape than any of
      the world’s other leading nations bar the US, according to the Organisation
      for Economic Co-operation & Development.’


      • Tom Tom

        A broad based recovery started in end–2009, but faces
        significant headwinds during 2011, That was the OECD previous assessment…..good job they get public sector salaries rather than compete in the private sector

  • Rhoda Klapp

    It is a function of leadership to sort this out. It is a failure of leadership for it to persist.

    While they bicker, the country is in decline.

    • Tom Tom

      That is beautifully expressed !

    • HooksLaw

      The government do not control the civil service – thats the point. There was I believe a suggestion recently that a Minister should be able to veto people on the short list for Permanent Secretary. The Civil Service Commission howled blue murder.

      It may or not be a good idea but in the USA thousands of outsiders are brought in every 4 years to join ‘The Administration’.

      So, surprisingly enough, the premise you start from is rubbish.

      • Daniel Maris

        We’re importing about 250,000 people (net) every year. First of all you have to take off 0.5% growth per annum to cover that. In fact the real negative impact is probably much more in reality since they all require up front infrastructure costs – such as housing – which they haven’t yet paid for and in terms of the increase in housing prices for those already living here.

        It would be a bit surprising if we didn’t stage some sort of recovery from the worst economic downturn in 70 years and while the rest of the world is growing at about 4% per annum.

        My concern is how this “recovery”, if you can call it that, is so lopsided, with CEOs getting 27% increases in remuneration one year, companies no paying their taxes, the well off not paying their taxes, public sector workers on a four year pay freeze, and now benefits under attack.

      • Rhoda Klapp

        Defeatist excuses again, Trevor. You don’t understand what leadership is. It is not just ordering people about, it is getting them to do what you want by any means available. If you are saying our Prime Minister and cabinet can’t do that then is there any point in them carrying on? If reforming the relationship between government and the CS is the right solution, they ought to embark on that course, difficult though it may be. Not take their complaints to James Forsyth to retell here. Because that is weasel behaviour.

      • Tom Tom

        Yes because the President is The Executive – if we go back to rule by Monarch the Queen could appoint her own Civil Servants and use the Lord Chamberlain instead of the Prime Minister. That would be more akin to the US system and Parliament would be separated from The Executive. Prince of Wales would use his position in the Lords just as the US Vice President uses his in The Senate. The US system is simply modelled on George III

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