John Humphrys: Ministers or Civil Servants : Which Do You Trust More?

August 28, 2020, 11:41 AM UTC

Boris Johnson sacked the top civil servant at the Department for Education this week. After the fiasco of ‘A’ level results, the U-turn earlier in the summer over providing free school meals during the holidays, and the recent to-ing-and fro-ing about whether pupils returning to school next month should have to wear face masks, there is perhaps nothing surprising about the Prime Minister’s apparently peremptory action: the current Department for Education would not seem to merit an A star. Except that it used to be thought that ministers not civil servants should take the rap when things went wrong. And sacking top civil servants seems to be becoming a bit of a habit with this government, provoking the accusation that Boris Johnson prefers to let competent civil servants carry the can so that incompetent ministers can get off Scot free. Is this fair? And who would you trust more to run our affairs, civil servants or ministers?

In demanding that Jonathan Slater, the permanent secretary at the education department pack his bags this weekend rather than wait till his scheduled retirement after a long career in public service next spring, the Prime Minister said there was ‘a need for fresh official leadership’ in the ministry. Downing Street added that the decision that Mr Slater should go soon was taken some time ago, and long before the ‘A’ level fiasco engulfed the government. But that fiasco (involving the use of an algorithm to award grades to ‘A’ level students unable to sit the exams because of Covid and then abandoning the system when protests against its palpable unfairness became deafening) cannot have helped. Only the day before Mr Slater’s sacking, Sally Collier, the head of the exam regulator, Ofqual, had ‘resigned’. So, after the chaos of the last week, the heads of two officials – but no ministers -- rolled.

Boris Johnson could be thought to have made light of the fiasco when, on Wednesday during a visit to a school in Leicestershire, he attributed the ‘A’ level mayhem to a ‘mutant algorithm’. But his critics, including many senior members of his own party, see things quite differently. In their eyes the fiasco was utterly foreseeable and required only some elementary political nous to avoid. Political nous is what ministers are there to provide and it is exactly what, it’s alleged, the hapless Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, failed to provide. It would be fair to say that Mr Williamson is not regarded as the brightest luminary ever to have occupied his position. Indeed it’s hard to think of any other cabinet minister in recent history so universally derided as having been promoted way above his abilities. But he is loyal to Mr Johnson and, as a former Chief Whip, knows where all the bodies are buried. So, the argument goes, because Mr Williamson is too dangerous to sack, someone else has to walk the plank. Step forward, Mr Slater and Ms Collier.

What makes this more than a passing squall in some people’s eyes is that it’s not the first and only time under this government that a senior civil servant has been suddenly required to clear his desk. In fact it’s the fifth time in six months.

Back in February, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir Philip Rutnam, ‘walked’, accusing the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, of bullying, and claiming there had been a ‘vicious and orchestrated campaign’ against him, about which he is taking the government to court. Subsequently, the top diplomat at the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald, was escorted to the door and then the permanent secretary at the Department of Justice, Sir Richard Heaton, also made an early departure. The most spectacular case, however, was the premature ending of the career of Sir Mark Sedwill as the Cabinet Secretary. The exchange of letters with the Prime Minister hardly suggested it was a case of Sir Mark pleading with a reluctant Mr Johnson to allow him to leave early so he could spend more time with his family.

Following Mr Slater’s defenestration after the long list of others, Labour protested that civil servants had ‘time and time again taken the fall for the incompetence and failure of ministers’. And Dave Penman, the general secretary of the First Division Association, the trade union of top civil servants, said: ‘If it wasn’t clear before, then it certainly is now – this administration will throw civil service leaders under a bus without a moment’s hesitation to shield ministers from any kind of accountability’. Trust between civil servants and ministers, he said, had reached ‘an all-time low’.

But is this reading of events the right one, or might the government have a point about the calibre of top civil servants? It is certainly true that profound doubts among some leading figures in the government about the effectiveness of senior civil servants long predates this summer’s season of U-turns, fiascos and widespread despair about the incompetence of government. It goes back to the early days of David Cameron’s coalition government when his then education secretary, Michael Gove and Mr Gove’s then special adviser, Dominic Cummings, concluded that the civil service was more often a block to good government than an aid to it. And that belief only strengthened in the interim.

When Mr Cummings returned to government last summer, as the infinitely more powerful chief aide to the Prime Minister – indeed as the man many people think actually runs the government – reform of the civil service was top of his list of priorities. And even the ‘distraction’ of Covid hasn’t weakened his resolve. Over the summer he’s been organising the creation of a beefed-up Prime Minister’s Office, with its own new headquarters in Whitehall, as a means of putting the Cabinet Office, the stronghold of top civil servants, back in its box. And in June Mr Gove, the minister with greatest responsibility for the running of government and therefore of its relationship with civil servants, delivered a major speech in which he accused government departments of recruiting new civil servants ‘in their own image’, with the result that the civil service’s assumptions were ‘inescapably metropolitan’. This was, in effect, shorthand for accusing civil servants of living in a bubble in which they haven’t a clue what’s going on outside London

So who’s right? It’s difficult for outsiders to make an independent judgment about the competence or otherwise of senior civil servants because they remain largely inaccessible to proper scrutiny, except occasionally by select committees in Parliament who sometimes haul the civil service top brass in front of them for a grilling. After the palpable failures of government over the summer (never mind over Covid too), it’s a dead cert that those committees will be wanting to get to the bottom of those failures to find out just who was responsible and who (if anyone) was made a scapegoat. Just because those committees are comprised of politicians doesn’t mean they will be automatically biased in favour of ministers against civil servants. In fact, given the sense of jaw-dropping disbelief on the Tory backbenches about what a shambles this government has become, the bias could well be the other way.

So we shall have to wait and see whether or not the collective slaughter of top civil servants by Boris Johnson is merited by their behaviour or not. But there is a quite separate question that also needs asking. Should ministers, whatever the quality of their civil servants, take responsibility and resign anyway when their departments foul up? It used to be the case that, almost automatically, they did resign even when their own finger prints were nowhere to be found on the forensic evidence. This was the case even as recently as the government of the last prime minister, Theresa May. Her home secretary, Amber Rudd, fell on her sword over the Windrush scandal – for misinforming the House of Commons – even though she had had nothing to do with the policy itself and even though her misleading the Commons was allegedly due to her having been poorly briefed herself (the permanent secretary at the time being, in fact, Sir Philip Rutnam).

It seems, though, that Boris Johnson’s ministers play under entirely new rules. Some, thinking of honour, would say those new rules ‘aren’t cricket’. What’s your view? In the light of all the recent sackings of top civil servants, do you think Boris Johnson and his ministers are guilty of ‘throwing them under a bus’ to save themselves? Or do you think there is a real problem with the competence of senior civil servants and that the Prime Minister and his top aide, Mr Cummings, are right to be trying to ‘clean the stables’? Who, in the end do you trust more to deliver good government: ministers or civil servants?

Let us know what you think.