Blobs for the boys
Priti Patel’s public spat shows No 10 needs to do better against the blob
The Home Office’s permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, publicly quit on Saturday and said he will seek damages for constructive dismissal. Students of public quitting will have noted the professionalism of the operation, and drawn a sad contrast with the Home Office’s usual performance under Sir Philip.
Rutnam claims he has been the target of “a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign”, and that he didn’t believe Priti Patel, the Home Secretary when she denied she had any involvement. Michael Gove announced today that the Cabinet Office would be investigating his claims that the Home Secretary Priti Patel was a bully.
The Home Office’s deficiencies are well documented, and long-canvassed changes to the immigration system were bound to put relations within the department under strain. But is the Government really committed to Whitehall reform?
Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, has written infamously long blog posts on why the civil service requires wholesale upheaval. In 2015, for example, he talked about “replacing many Whitehall institutions” and changing others “so that they do not depend on sprinkling a layer of consultants on a broken bureaucracy”.
When he worked for Michael Gove in the Department for Education, Cummings and Gove fought ‘the blob’, and told a convincing story about having done so. A narrative which has been much repeated and used for illuminating purposes. But who won? It would be a brave pundit – or parent – who claimed anything other than the DfE blob won handsomely.
Today in the Commons, Michael Gove offered Boris Johnson’s confidence in “a fantastic Home Secretary”, while answering a Urgent Question from Jeremy Corbyn on the civil service. The Prime Minister elsewhere said that he “was full of admiration” for the Civil Service and praised their “Alpha minds”. Yet in Patel’s struggle with the Home Office blob, Number 10 had deprived her all of the weapons she would surely need. No. 10 removed two of her closest aides in recent months and sent her a Cummings Ally, Michael Young to advise on policy. James Starkie and Alex Wild have gone, leaving Patel with no media Spads at all which makes it hard to see how she’s supposed to defend herself against the blob.
It’s also noticeable that Sir Mark Sedwill is still in post despite much earlier Cummings-sourced chatter that he would be removed. Indeed Sir Mark has pulled off a series of Blob personnel triumphs, culminating with the appointment of the recent UK Ambassador to the US, Karen Pierce, whose affinity to the cabinet secretary is marked even by the standards of senior and preferred mandarins.
So far the Civil service has been anonymously talked against by this government, rather than being acted against. And such solutions as have been canvassed – ‘weirdos’ like Andrew Sabinsky – have had two clear flaws. They can’t have any confidence they’ll be held onto in the face of even minimal press pressure, and, what case has been made that this is the way to turn the supertanker? The one extra-bureaucratic appointment clearly making a difference at the moment is David Frost, the quintessential poacher turned gamekeeper. In a system as complex and entrenched as Britian’s civil service, who’s more likely to see it tamed and turned? People who know what they’re doing, or people who leave beneath the line comments?
At the moment, unfortunately, the civil service is more whispered about than worried. The Deep State has a way to go before it’s on the run. But at least people are getting to tell a nice story about themselves.
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