The government must not give in to out of touch civil servants like Sir Philip Rutnam



Whitehall hates change. Most of all it hates changing itself. Consequently when a new Government comes in intent on reforming not only the UK’s place in the world, but also the machinery of government, fireworks are to be expected.

One of those flaming self-propelled projectiles spectacularly exploded on Saturday, perfectly timed to be featured in the Sunday papers and flagship TV shows. Clever firework.

Sir Philip Rutnam’s public flouncing out was designed to inflict maximum damage on a Government he clearly does not agree with, and a Home Secretary he clearly despises. Despite denying briefing the media, his resignation statement found its way into the inboxes of Westminster journalists with remarkable ease. His choreographed address-to-camera led news bulletins. Far from representing a neutral facilitator, these are the actions of a man with an agenda.

In many ways this event encapsulates the problem of a group of people tasked with delivering an energetic government programme that they simply do not believe in. Crucially, too often key mandarins aren’t only unenthusiastic but actually opposed to a policy direction.

Noises from the Home Office suggest that Priti Patel was growing increasingly frustrated by people presenting obstacle after obstacle in the way of dealing with extremist groups like Extinction Rebellion, and failing to crack on with deporting violent foreign criminals.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the central London dwelling, taxpayer funded career bureaucrats were sympathetic to the cause of the EU, after all there must be a certain natural level of empathy with their well-remunerated Brussels dwelling counterparts and bosses. What does appear surprising is just how accurate comedies like Yes Minister and The Thick of It appear to be by all accounts of those who work within the system.

The civil service is not fit for purpose. The clock off at four, path of least resistance attitude endemic within the organisation would be reason enough for systemic change, but the excruciating experience of protracted civil servant heel dragging over Brexit in particular reveals a deeper need for reform.

It’s ironic that so many of those whose job title, let alone job description, is to serve have such a sense of entitlement. If anyone in government exhibits a born-to-rule attitude it’s some of the senior civil servants. Far too often they, along with the media, present it as a constitutional outrage for democratically elected politicians to dare to suggest that an unelected bureaucrat should move on.

A story going around the civil service a couple of years ago alleged that the now-defunct Department for Exiting the European Union was partly so useless because all over government people leapt at the opportunity of the creation of a new department to shuffle out their less-than-productive yet unfireable colleagues.

The refrain from politicians (and the harder working civil servants) is deafening. Frankly, it’s too hard to remove those who aren’t doing a good enough job. Once they are on the cushy conveyor belt, life becomes simple. Large taxpayer funded salaries backed up by gold plated pension pots and excruciatingly frequently an all but guaranteed nod in the honours system at the end of it.

Reform to this bonkers system is beyond necessary, and as that reform approaches, those with vested interests in keeping the system as it is will engage in ever more open warfare with the government.

This is a battle upon which almost the entirety of this administration’s agenda depends. Number 10 needs to hold their nerve.

Tom Harwood is an award-winning journalist and commentator. Follow him on twitter: @tomhfh