Inside The Deteriorating Relationship Between Ministers And The Civil Service

“Ministers make out that we’re lazy or bloated to the press but behind the scenes we’re told they’re happy with our work,” says one civil servant.

Another adds: “Check the facts, don’t believe everything ministers say, take it with a pinch of salt.”

They decided to speak out over being used as a “scapegoat” by ministers who they accuse of publicly bashing them as part of a “culture war”.

“It’s a bit shocking really, every other day there’s another announcement to the media and it feels like the government is waging a culture war against its own employees,” one veteran civil servant said.

“They are progressing headlong into a civil service disaster here in terms of morale and retention of the skills they need.”

– Mike Clancy, Prospect trade union

They are not allowed to speak out publicly due to the strict impartiality code they sign up to. However, some decided to speak to HuffPost UK after Liz Truss made an incendiary claim that they have a “woke” culture that “strays into antisemitism”.

Railing against the civil service has become a theme in the battle to replace Boris Johnson as the two candidates fling “red meat” at Tory party members.

Truss has promised to wage a “war on Whitehall waste” while Rishi Sunak vowed to slash jobs in the “bloated post-Covid state”.

“No wonder people think we’re greedy and lazy if this is all they hear about us,” commented one civil servant.

Ministers have ordered the service to cut 91,000 Whitehall jobs – a reduction of almost 20 per cent – while also reducing redundancy pay.

“We’re considered to be faceless pen pushers, bureaucrats and all these accusations of bloat. But we’re real people too, we’re also taxpayers and we’re doing real work.”

– A current civil servant

Even Tory MPs have accused the government of using the civil service as a “dead cat” – referring to a political strategy to divert media from failures in other areas.

Brexit opportunities and government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has been the man leading the war on the civil service.

He infamously left “passive aggressive” notes on their desks as part of his drive to get them into the office, saying: “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon. With every good wish, Rt Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg MP.”

Rarely a week goes by when Rees-Mogg is not clobbering Whitehall civil servants. Recently he vowed to crackdown on flexitime, accused them of blocking Brexit laws and promised to fight their “woke indoctrination”.

“He stalks the halls like a Victorian prefect leaving passive aggressive slips of paper on people’s desks, while ministers are apparently perfectly capable of working from home whilst on holiday or at Chequers,” one civil servant commented.

Privately, some ministers are said to be less bothered about the drive back to the office and transport secretary Grant Shapps has taken a much softer tone in public, saying Zoom calls are often “more convenient”.

Morale

Every single civil servant we spoke to said the attacks by MPs were having an impact on their morale. A particular gripe was how civil servants first learned about huge job cuts via briefings to the media.

A worker in a major government department said: “When you wake up one morning to a front page headline where your boss is talking about getting rid of 90,000 of you, and how that’s a ‘good thing’, how could morale be anywhere but low? The endless criticism is incredibly demotivating.”

She said they worked “incredibly hard” through the pandemic, on the crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine and now on the looming recession.

“Not only is that hard work unrecognised, we are actively briefed against and used in a culture war to distract from their own failures,” she added.

Another said she felt like they were being used as “scapegoats” and colleagues were feeling down about the attacks: “Our senior managers seem frustrated and despondent.

“After years of toeing the party line and saying what they should say they are starting not to so much. I think that’s a sign of how worn down they are by it all.”

A male civil servant of more than 20 years said ministers were creating a “toxic environment” with their comments. He said some colleagues were suffering with burnout and their mental health and whole areas were struggling with staffing levels.

“We are an easy target because we don’t have a voice,” he said. “It’s easy to build us up as the stereotype of the bowler hat ‘yes minister’ type civil servant or the army of administrators who don’t perform well and would be out of their depth in the private sector.

“We just seem to be, in their eyes, a low level citizen because we somehow take and we don’t give.”

Minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Kirsty O’Connor – PA Images via Getty Images

Alexander Rose, who was a senior solicitor in the Government Legal Department for seven years, described the attacks as “corrosive” and “self-defeating”.

“Ministers who don’t value their civil servants inevitably can’t recruit or retain the best staff, so end up underperforming,” he said.

Meanwhile, an anonymous former civil servant who recently left for the private sector, said morale in the industry could “barely be worse”.

He said he signed up because he believed in public service, adding: “Months of attacks have taken their toll.

“The claims of laziness, the plans for redundancy announced to the Daily Mail and ITV before they were announced to us, the constant suggestion that we have frustrated Brexit when we can only operate within parameters set by ministers, have been awful.”

Another added: “Going and telling the press before the senior leadership is pretty low.”

History

Many of the civil servants accept they will sometimes be used as a “political football” and say there have always been “spats” over the years.

However, those who have served for decades say that the 2016 Brexit referendum “changed everything”.

This is when the Vote Leave crew, led by Dominic Cummings, burst onto the scene as a major force in UK politics.

Dominic Cummings became Boris Johnson's chief adviser.
Dominic Cummings became Boris Johnson’s chief adviser.

Claire Doherty via Getty Images

Their anti elite-establishment rhetoric grew in influence, as did the Conservative Party’s eurosceptic European Research Group.

We all remember the accusations over “Project Fear” and the rows over Brexit when civil servants were accused of bias or trying to frustrate the UK’s departure from the EU.

It festered under Theresa May and by the time Johnson’s government came to power, the agitators were no longer on the edges of the party – they were given positions in government.

“It seems like a perfect storm in the civil service at the moment – pressures on pay and redundancies will lead to an unanticipated outcome in terms of specialists leaving.”

– Anonymous civil servant

Cummings, hell-bent on ripping up Whitehall, became Johnson’s chief advisor and immediately started waging a war on “the blob”.

Downing Street even allegedly drew up a “shit list” of senior civil servants, thought of as roadblocks to change, that they wanted replaced.

There was an exodus of senior civil servants including permanent secretaries – the most senior in any government department.

Insiders say those figures were “frozen out” because they were thought of as the “remainer elite”.

The first defining moment of Johnson’s leadership came in early 2020 when his home secretary Priti Patel was accused of bullying.

Patel avoided the sack despite a cabinet office inquiry concluding that she broke the ministerial code – because Johnson ignored the findings.

Johnson’s ethics adviser Sir Alex Allan, who led the bullying inquiry, quit when Johnson overruled him.

The allegations emerged after the resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam the former home office permanent secretary, over what he described as a “vicious and orchestrated campaign” against him. The government reportedly settled for £340,000 with Sir Philip over his claim for unfair dismissal.

Priti Patel and Sir Philip Rutnam
Priti Patel and Sir Philip Rutnam

The Covid-19 pandemic and Cummings’ departure saw a short cessation in attacks on the civil service.

There was the Partygate scandal which led to some resigning from the civil service and others subjected to disciplinary procedures.

Some felt they were being unfairly penalised while their bosses were able to lawyer up, others in different departments were furious at the behaviour.

“I had friends take their own lives and I wish I had broken the rules to see them in person and maybe help,” one civil servant said.

“To find that many had broken the rules on government estates – including politicians and civil servants – was gut-wrenching, and caused a lot of people to look elsewhere.”

“If people don’t trust the government, and the government then has to tell them something difficult, you’ve undermined the ability to deal with big issues that the government needs to be trusted on.”

– Dave Penman, FDA union

As life slowly returned to normal, ministers started gunning for civil servants working from home and Johnson announced drastic cuts.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, said attacks on civil servants had “become the norm”. He added: “It’s become pretty routine now – they can just throw that stuff around.”

In June 2022, Johnson’s new ethics adviser Lord Geidt quit, claiming he was put in an “impossible and odious” position by Johnson. He has not currently been replaced, meaning that if there is a complaint about a minister from a civil servant they effectively cannot be dealt with.

Penman has warned that without any meaningful processes in place, it will result in a scandal or suicide.

And now the Tory leadership race has triggered a dramatic escalation in the criticism of civil servants.

Former candidate Penny Mordaunt claimed that “Whitehall is broken” while Suella Braverman accused civil servants of a “remain bias”.

“It just feels a bit relentless,” one civil servant tells HuffPost UK. “Some of it is idealogical – small state, tight rein on taxpayers’ spending, but there’s a lot dead cat strategies.

“They’re making announcements to divert away from difficult issues elsewhere, where they don’t want to be scrutinised.

“There’s a lot of red meat thrown around to get support – from the extremes of the Tory party.”

“We’re not lazy and we care. I frequently worked 60-odd hour weeks and I am so proud of what I and my teams achieved. In 2020, I did not take any leave because of Covid and Brexit.”

Truss has vowed to slash public spending by up to £11 billion by cutting the amount of days off civil servants are allowed, ending national pay deals and scrapping diversity and inclusion jobs.

However, her assault on Whitehall ended in an embarrassing U-turn after her plan to cut civil service pay outside London sparked a fierce backlash from northern Tories.

Last week she came under fire for an extraordinary claim that “woke” civil service culture “strays into antisemitism”.

Jewish civil servants told HuffPost UK it was a “strange” allegation and suggested she had “vomited out buzzwords”.

Another civil servant added: “I’ve never seen racism in the areas I’ve worked in, everyone understands diversity and tolerance. There’s no undercurrent of anything like that.”

Gavin Barwell, Tory peer and former chief of staff to Theresa May, hit back at Truss: “You’re about to become prime minister. You will inherit a civil service demoralised under your predecessor.

“You will depend on these people to deliver your policies. Why on earth would you choose to insult them by accusing them of something for which there is zero evidence?”

Sunak has said he would ensure senior civil servants had to spend at least a year of their career outside Whitehall and would receive pay rewards based on performance rather than longevity. He also pledged to “tackle civil service groupthink” as part of his “shake up”.

However, he was slapped down by unions who said his plans show he “doesn’t understand the basics” and pointed out that civil servants have not received pay rises for longevity for nearly two decades.

Penman said attacking the civil service had become their “modus operandi”, adding: “If they’re in trouble it’s the first go to card – how can we say the civil service is responsible for this? ‘They’re spending all their time on trans training rather than getting on with delivering passports’.

“It’s like you’ve got Guido running everybody’s press officer or minister. It feels endless, a constant battle, under attack and not being valued by ministers and a real lack of understanding.”

The Next Prime Minister

The overriding issue worrying civil servants is the “arbitrary” 91,000 job cuts they have been told to make.

In the dying days of his premiership Johnson told the Daily Mail exclusively that this move would save £3.5 billion a year.

The aim is to “prune” Whitehall back to 2016 staffing levels on the assumption that many staff were hired for Brexit and Covid but were now not needed.

However, some civil servants say there has been no cessation with their workload and that ministers are constantly asking them to “do more”.

“We’re not bloated. I don’t think any organisation can cut 20 per cent of people and not see an impact on their service and certainly 40 per cent.”

– Current civil servant

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect union, said the government announced the cuts and then commissioned the civil service to model the consequences.

He accused them of an “abrogation of government responsibility” and added: “The reality is, they are progressing headlong into a civil service disaster here in terms of morale and retention of the skills they need.

“What the government is relying on, and the Liz Truss’s of this world, is the lampoon of the bowler hatted civil servant. To try and create an impression that civil servants are just a drain.

Liz Truss during a hustings event in Perth, Scotland.
Liz Truss during a hustings event in Perth, Scotland.

Jane Barlow – PA Images via Getty Images

“Sadly the word unprecedented is used too often, but this is unprecedented.

“It is the lampoon of the status and the contribution, it’s 20 to 40 per cent job cuts, it’s cutting redundancy terms by a third and finally you’re going to suffer effectively a two-thirds real terms cut in your pay as well. Something has to give.”

Whoever becomes prime minister will be faced with a decision on whether to continue with the cuts.

Sunak has so far avoided committing to the 91,00 figure but Truss has taken more of a hardline approach throughout the race.

However, it is worth noting that in the foreign office Truss pushed back hard against demands for cuts and asked for 1,000 more staff to cope with Ukraine and other global issues.

Penman said the cuts were “insulting” and “intellectually flawed” adding: “Which jobs, which grades? As soon as you start thinking about it – it just falls apart.

Boris Johnson flanked by the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service Simon Case.
Boris Johnson flanked by the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service Simon Case.

OLI SCARFF via Getty Images

“You don’t get a sense that actually there are enough serious people at the centre of government thinking about the long-term consequences of all of this.

“They don’t feel like they’re interested in governing, they feel like they’re interested in being in government and winning elections. Not actually governing. So it doesn’t matter if you trash the brand because if that gets you elected with your base – that’s the point.”

Whoever wins the race will inherit a demoralised and exhausted civil service, fed up with being used as a “punching bag”.

Simon Case is expected to offer to step down from his role as cabinet secretary when the new prime minister takes office in September.

Sources told The Times that he had “lost the confidence” of permanent secretaries, who felt he had failed to stand up to Johnson and defend the impartiality of the civil service.

He was also blamed for allowing the prime minister to announce plans to cut jobs without consultation or any strategy to implement the cuts.

In the meantime a number of civil servants are considering whether they want to even remain in the service. Often they look to move department when they are unhappy but some young civil servants are making the jump to the private sector.

Leaving The Service

“You constantly get stuff from people saying they’re going. I got a message on Monday from someone saying ‘I’m sick of this’. I get messages like that relatively regularly,” Penman said.

He said the FDA union had record recruitment in May and had grown 40 per cent in the last four years.

One civil servant said the public criticism from ministers had made her want to leave, telling HuffPost UK: “Up until the last year or so, I wouldn’t have considered myself a ‘union person’.

“However, the government’s poor behaviour and threats of redundancies have driven me to join a union.

“That they are now attempting to lower redundancy pay to make the consequences of their poor decision making cheaper is a laughable abuse of their workforce.”

“Why would someone on the outside think I want to come and work for these people and have my reputation trashed? They’re going to throw me under a bus.”

– Dave Penman, FDA union

They said they have already started applying to the private sector, adding: “Not only will my pay go up, but I won’t have to hear my employers endlessly brief the media negatively about my colleagues.”

Another added: “It seems like a perfect storm in the civil service at the moment – pressures on pay and redundancies will lead to an unanticipated outcome in terms of specialists leaving.

“It may come as a shock to the government where they are by 2025 on the back of all this.”

A former civil servant said the criticism from ministers was having a “massive impact” on workers, adding: “I know of dozens of people looking to leave.”

Union boss Clancy added: “Why would you work in the civil service when the people that you work for are denigrating what you’re doing most days of the week?

“Private sector employers don’t behave like this. They don’t go out and say their workforces are workshy and underperforming and we need to get rid of them all.”

“We’re now in a position where there is a brain drain within the Civil Service which impacts the delivery of new policies. Those who decry the quality of the Civil Service are often those who have done the most to damage it.”

– Alexander Rose, former solicitor in the Government Legal Department

It all comes after a union revealed that one in three civil servants have skipped meals to save money as a result of the cost of living crisis.

A survey of 12,000 PCS members found more than 9 per cent had claimed benefits and 8 per cent used food banks to get by as inflation soars.

“People like me are tired,” a former civil servant added. “Why give our all when it simply is not valued, and politicians are free to make absurd claims without basis and without response?”

William

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