DAN HODGES: Truculence. Leaks. And now sabotage. Whitehall’s Blob is seizing the challenge to take its revenge
Describing the mood among civil servants in her department, one Minister channelled an inner Joyce Grenfell. Adopting the tone of the much-missed St Trinian’s actress, she said: ‘I’m suddenly getting some pretty heavy Head Girl energy from my private office. I’ll ask them to do something and there’ll be a lot of, “No, Minister, I really think you’d be better off doing it this way instead.” They’re getting very cocky.’
Civil servants sense change is in the air. They can read the polls and the body-language of the Tory politicians they serve. And they are relishing their discomfort.
‘Initially, my departmental officials were fine, until they thought a ministerial reshuffle was coming and I might be leaving. Then they started briefing against me to everyone,’ a former Minister told me. ‘Now they believe there’s going to be a change of government, which would be the biggest reshuffle of all. So they’re really stirring things up.’
Civil servants have calculated Rishi Sunak’s (pictured) administration is doomed, and next year will see it replaced
From Downing Street to the individual government departments, the picture is the same.
Like Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey, civil servants have calculated Rishi Sunak’s administration is doomed, and next year will see it replaced by Sir Keir Starmer and Labour. And, as a result, the Whitehall machine has begun flexing its collective muscle.
A fortnight ago, the successful bids for the latest tranche of Levelling Up funding were announced. Dozens of Tory MPs in vulnerable Red Wall seats were praying that an injection of cash into their areas could boost their political fortunes and turn the electoral tide. But to their horror, many found their local projects had been rejected.
‘The PM was told he and other Ministers couldn’t get involved in selecting the winning bids,’ one furious Red Waller told me. ‘The civil servants warned him that if he did, he’d be subjected to judicial review. It was all done by the officials. So the Government has spent £2 billion but everyone’s still unhappy.’
Ministers also report a new truculence in the way internal government appointments are being managed.
‘We were interviewing for a new senior policy position,’ a Government adviser told me, ‘and I said, “The Minister is very impressed by one candidate.” But the official replied, “Yes, sorry, but we’re selecting someone else.” ’
It’s now almost three years since Dom Cummings (pictured) – Boris Johnson’s most influential aide – reportedly pledged ‘a hard rain’ would fall on those mandarins who tried to oppose his Civil Service reforms
Despite the adviser repeating how impressed they were with one of the candidates, the civil servant just shrugged and said: ‘I’m afraid we’re going in a different direction.’
Some insiders believe the prospect of a change of regime is encouraging some elements of what they call ‘the Blob’ to move beyond obstructionism to outright sabotage. ‘Just look at some of the stuff that’s happening at the Treasury,’ one Tory adviser said. ‘It’s leaking like a sieve. Officials are openly briefing anything they think will damage the Government. They can’t wait for [Labour’s] Rachel Reeves to come sweeping in.’
Part of this is payback. It’s now almost three years since Dom Cummings – Boris Johnson’s most influential aide – reportedly pledged ‘a hard rain’ would fall on those mandarins who tried to oppose his Civil Service reforms.
Allies of Cummings insist he never used the phrase, but it was seen within Whitehall as a declaration of war. A war many Ministers are now resigned to losing.
‘I understand what Dom was trying to achieve,’ one told me, ‘but that just wasn’t the right way. He thought he could use our big majority to steamroller his reforms through the Civil Service, but he never stood a chance. They’ve been doing this for over 200 years – there was only ever going to be one winner.’
Another issue is the institutional conservatism of the Civil Service machine. As Ministers have come to recognise the scale of the electoral challenge facing them, they’ve been looking for increasingly radical solutions to try to shift the political weather. Only to find their own officials standing in their way.
It was such intransigence – real or perceived – that lay at the heart of Liz Truss’s ill-fated decision to axe Treasury Permanent Secretary Sir Tom Scholar (pictured)
It was such intransigence – real or perceived – that lay at the heart of Liz Truss’s ill-fated decision to axe Treasury Permanent Secretary Sir Tom Scholar. ‘Scholar was the perfect symbol of what Liz was fighting against,’ one ally claimed. ‘She wanted to be bold in prioritising economic growth. He was just interested in managed decline. That’s why she got rid of him.’
When Sir Tom was ousted, there was an immediate backlash from the Civil Service establishment. And when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) launched an unprecedented attack on Truss’s tax-cuttings plans, some Ministers believed it was directly organised by his allies in Whitehall.
‘They were behind it,’ one told me. ‘We’re pretty sure some were even using their contacts in the White House to wind up the IMF to attack the emergency budget. It was all co-ordinated.’
These suspicions about the loyalty of their own officials were only heightened by rumours last week that Sir Tom is in the running to be appointed as Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff in a future Labour government.
Other reports raised the prospect of a senior role for Theresa May’s Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins.
‘These guys are jumping ship to Starmer, or having cosy chats with him, and they’re taking all this intelligence with them. They know where all the bodies are buried,’ one Minister lamented.
Rumours last week suggested that Sir Tom is in the running to be appointed as Sir Keir Starmer’s (pictured) chief of staff in a future Labour government
Labour sources say that so-called ‘black box discussions’, in which Starmer and his team engage in formal talks with the Civil Service over their plans for government, have not yet commenced. But they are perfectly open about the fact they are already cultivating relationships with senior officials. ‘You need to remember that a lot of the senior guys were around when we were last in power,’ one Shadow Minister explained.
‘Tom Scholar and Olly Robbins worked for Gordon Brown and Tony Blair when they were Prime Minister. Also, when we were in government, we didn’t go round telling them we were going to smash them and the institution they’d spent their life working for to pieces.’
Civil servants have their faults, and they have their qualities, but one characteristic stands above all others – a great capacity for self-preservation.
The Whitehall apparatchiks believe the writing is on the wall for Sunak and his Government. And they intend to conduct themselves accordingly.
One Cabinet Minister compared the situation to the dressing room culture of Chelsea Football Club: ‘The players know the team’s results are rubbish, they’re out of contention for the title, but they know that ultimately it’s the manager, not the players, who will carry the can.’ Another was more blunt: ‘Civil servants can see there’s blood in the water. They know we’re basically done for. So their attitude is, “We might as well help finish them off.” ’
A ‘hard rain’ was supposed to fall on Sir Humphrey and his colleagues. But, as ever, they have endured. Now they have the opportunity to wreak their revenge. And they fully intend to seize it.
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