Why do so many home secretaries fall out with their officials?

Something about the Home Office seems to breed tension, as many of Priti Patel’s forerunners also found

Probably of the great Whitehall departments, the Home Office has been the one in which ministers and senior civil servants most often find themselves embroiled in conflict.

Whether it is the life and death nature of the subjects under discussion – policing, migration, terrorism – that lead to the tensions or something deep in the Home Office culture has always been a matter of debate. But by reputation, it is a graveyard for ministers.

None of this is to excuse Priti Patel’s behaviour to her civil servants. Good bosses do not try to improve underperforming staff by bullying them. Warnings from the now-departed special adviser Dominic Cummings that a “hard rain” was coming, or Boris Johnson’s complaint that Whitehall had been sluggish in its response to coronavirus, look suspiciously like buck passing.

Michael Gove’s recent Ditchley lecture about the civil service revealed how frustrated ministers are by what they regard as a mediocre culture “hostile to risk, adventure, experimentation and novelty”.

But as he himself acknowledged, change requires a more generous management style, and leaders prepared to encourage, and not just denigrate.

Francis Maude’s current review of the Cabinet Office may provide answers to how to solve some of these problems. It would be wise if his review was extended to include the role of the now departed Sir Alex Allan, the adviser on ministerial standards.

He has held that post since 2011 and, on more than one occasion, his advice about wayward ministers has either been ignored, not sought or his role supplanted in an ad hoc way by the cabinet secretary.

He has often tolerated these slights, but his resignation on Friday indicates he has had enough, and in the end he must have come to the view he is just an appendage, and not a true constraint on arbitrary prime ministerial patronage.

Certainly, tensions between home secretaries and their civil servants are nothing new – though other holders of the office were never accused of resorting to bullying.

Kenneth Baker, now Lord Baker, famously told Jack Straw, one of the few survivors at the Home Office: “Just remember as home secretary there will be 50 sets of officials working on schemes to undermine your government and destroy your political career, and the worst is not only will you not know who they are, but neither will they.”

Straw received other warnings. Indeed on being appointed home secretary in 1997, Straw was driven to meet his new permanent secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, and taken to his seventh-floor office where Sir Richard instructed his new boss to look out the window, and then asked him to describe what he saw.

“A clear blue sky,” Straw naively responded.

Wilson replied: “Dangerous. Just remember in your job you can never be sure when an Excocet will come straight out of a clear blue sky,” pointing to Straw’s feet, “and explode right there.”

The sense that the Home Office civil service was out to dominate its home secretary also afflicted another Labour home secretary. Roy Jenkins, appointed to the post in December 1965, spent his first months in office trying to bring to heel the permanent secretary Sir Charles Cunningham, a formidable Scot who had been in post since 1957 and believed all advice to ministers should come only from him personally, normally “in the form of two sheets of thick blue paper boiled down to a few hundred words of lucid explanation and boldly initialled CCC”.

The possibility that there was an alternative policy course was excluded from the two sheets. In the end Jenkins got Cunningham removed and most of his “troglodyte” undersecretaries.

David Blunkett was frustrated by what he once described as “rubber lever” syndrome, which often left him seething at how little he was achieving.

“I didn’t take the Tony Benn view that the civil service was party political; that they were somehow against us,” he recently recalled. “I took the view that all major organisations have defence mechanisms which resist substantial change.”

John Reid simply described the Home Office as not fit for purpose, and this after it had been broken up to make its agenda more manageable.

A large part of the tension stems from the fact the Home Office – probably more than any other major department – is judged on delivery as much as policy. And the failure to deliver is often on newspaper front pages.

Fiona Hill, the special adviser to Theresa May’s home secretaryship, recently explained to a Commons select committee how the home office is a department apart.

“Sometimes what seems like a great policy on paper, when you try to implement that, it does not work operationally. In a funny way, I would say at the Home Office I almost became less politically aware and more operationally aware because I needed to understand what the implication of a policy or a piece of politics might be on the ground.

“If it did not work, what happened on the ground would come back to bite not just the home secretary but the prime minister.”

Contributor

Patrick Wintour

The GuardianTramp

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