Good government requires ministers and civil servants to pull together. To pull together there must be trust. Trust requires both sides to respect the rules that cover the relationship. Ministers are elected politicians. Civil servants are career government officials. They have different responsibilities but shared goals. Many codes cover the way they should behave.
So far, so traditional. But these are not traditional times. The economy is on the rack after Brexit, Covid and the Ukraine war. The past year has seen extreme turmoil in government, with three prime ministers and multiple reshuffles. Relations between ministers and civil servants have been strained for a range of reasons. Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs and allegations of bullying against Dominic Raab are two of the most recent.
Unsurprisingly, civil service morale in Britain has plummeted. A government survey in December showed fewer than half of civil servants have confidence in their senior leaders. Pride in the civil service has fallen by 11 points in a year. In the Cabinet Office, the heart of government, satisfaction with the department’s leadership fell by 20 points.
When the survey was published, the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, wrote to the service. He admitted that morale has worsened on his watch and acknowledged that things were heading in the wrong direction. He told civil servants: “We do want to say that you have been heard and that we commit to do everything within our power to make your working lives better.”
Party politics dictates that the opposition will invariably blame ministers for things that go wrong. Hence the focus this week from Keir Starmer on Rishi Sunak’s handling of the Zahawi case. But the need to strengthen and maintain good government means that the governance and leadership of the civil service matter too.
Here, the buck stops not just with the prime minister but with Mr Case. The cabinet secretary’s intellect is not in doubt. His judgment increasingly is. He is the least experienced head of the civil service in modern times. He is also increasingly criticised for preferring to protect successive prime ministers rather than to stand up to them on behalf of the service.
It is not Mr Case’s fault that he was the preferred candidate of Boris Johnson, the most rule-breaking prime minister of modern times, and of his disruptive chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who despised the civil service and had just ousted its previous head, Sir Mark Sedwill. Nor can it have been easy to serve either Mr Johnson, who was always ready to push the boundaries, or then Liz Truss, who was set on overturning everything she had inherited.
Throughout these convulsive times, though, Mr Case has made a choice that many of his immediate predecessors might not have made. He has prioritised the part of his job that advises prime ministers over the parts of it that require him to act as head of the civil service and the guardian of the rules and codes of public life. That is why Mr Case is now seen in so many parts of Whitehall not as a champion but as a courtier.
The larger problem, though, is structural. The old system has broken. It needs to be reformed rather than restored. The answers include stronger rules, clearer responsibilities (including to the public interest and to parliament) and a new approach to recruitment and pay. Britain does not only need a new era of ministers. It needs a new era of civil service leaders too.