Tories consider controversial plan to politicise civil service after Raab scandal

No 10 adviser urges political appointments in a radical plan following crisis over bullying

Radical plans to bring in more “politicisation” of Whitehall by allowing ministers greater powers to appoint their own civil servants – including some with overt political affiliations – are being considered by the government’s own adviser on the civil service.

Writing in today’s Observer, the Conservative peer and former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who is expected to report shortly to Rishi Sunak, says that in order for ministers to get the best advice possible, we need “to be more robust and less mealy mouthed about ‘politicisation’”.

Maude’s ideas, which also include external auditing of advice given by civil servants to reward those who perform best, will cause deep alarm across Whitehall following the resignation of former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab on Friday after accusations were upheld that he had bullied officials who he believed had underperformed.

Raab was forced to quit the Cabinet after an official inquiry found that he had engaged in “abuse or misuse of power” by undermining and humiliating staff – and was also “intimidating and insulting” – during his time at the Ministry of Justice.

The Raab case has highlighted tensions between the need for Conservative ministers to drive policies forward to deliver on their political objectives, and the independence of the civil servants who serve them.

The manner of Raab’s departure has angered many Tory MPs, who see the civil service as dominated by liberal remainers, with some warning that other civil servants will be encouraged to claim a Conservative “political scalp” as a result of his departure.

Civil servants, on the other hand, now fear a backlash by Tory critics of the civil service, who include Maude.

Francis Maude.
Francis Maude, who is advising the prime minister on the civil service. Photograph: Allstar Picture Library /Alamy

Ahead of his report, Maude gives a clear indication that he believes only radical change, learning from the examples of countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, will prevent more crises breaking out between ministers and civil servants.

“It is perfectly possible to preserve impartiality and, indeed, improve continuity while allowing ministers more say in appointments,” he writes. “I will address this in the accountability and governance review I am undertaking for the government. Without material adjustment, there will be more cases like Raab’s when frustrations boil over.”

Appearing to back a dramatic break with the past, he adds: “We need a much more robust culture, with less groupthink, more rugged disagreement, and the confidence both to offer challenge and to accept it.

“That includes accepting candid feedback. Today, there is no external accountability for the quality of advice, other than to ministers. There could be value in regular external audits, conducted by qualified outsiders, with published results.

“This would reward officials who get it right, and provide a stimulus to the rest. We also need to be more robust and less mealy mouthed about ‘politicisation’. Again, other systems deal with this better.

“In France, permanent civil servants often have overt political affiliations and it causes few problems. In Australia, permanent civil servants in ministers’ private offices are released from the normal obligations of political impartiality and can take part in party political activity. We don’t need to go that far, but the key, as always, is transparency and pragmatism.”

Without change, Maude says, “we will see tensions rumbling, frustrations building and relationships fracturing”.

A former adviser to the government said that cabinet ministers had already gained a greater say over recent years in the appointment of their top civil servants. But, if Maude proposed to extend this further down the scale, it would be “incendiary” and threaten the concept of an independent civil service.

Many in Whitehall now fear that in the run-up to a general election, expected next year, the Conservatives will turn their fire increasingly on the civil service and blame it for the government’s shortcomings and the failings of Brexit.

On Saturday a former senior civil servant who worked with Raab said he had seen no evidence to support the ex-deputy prime minister’s accusation – after his resignation – that civil service “activists” were working against him.

Simon McDonald, who was permanent secretary of the Foreign Office for five years, said there was no civil service “agenda” and the “minister’s behaviour” was the issue.

After announcing he would quit on Friday, Raab lashed out at what he called “activist civil servants” who were able to “block reforms or changes through a rather passive-aggressive approach” when dealing with ministers.

But Lord McDonald, who gave evidence to Adam Tolley KC’s bullying investigation, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I disagree strongly with Mr Raab. I think all the civil servants I saw working for Dominic Raab worked very hard for him in the way they are required to do.

“There is no civil service activism, there is no civil service passive aggression, there is no separate civil service agenda. I saw no evidence of a small group of activists trying to undermine a minister. The issue is a minister’s behaviour.”


Toby Helm and Michael Savage

The GuardianTramp

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