It was a telephone call that tiptoed along one of the most delicate lines of the British constitution. Last month, Boris Johnson picked up the phone to ask Prince William whether he could poach one of his most senior courtiers, Simon Case, to be the new head of the civil service. The 41-year-old had been loaned to Downing Street to assist with the coronavirus pandemic — embedding himself as a key member of the Johnson team — but was expected to return to work for the future king.
According to officials with knowledge of the conversation, Prince William at first resisted losing one of his most trusted confidants, due to his own reliance on Case. Eventually though, the prince acquiesced and — much to the surprise of Whitehall — Case was appointed as the PM’s right-hand man. Little-known outside London’s circles of influence, he is now one of the most powerful people in the land.
The fact that Johnson was willing to take on the future monarch when it came to hiring Case is evidence of the huge importance he pins on rebuilding the British state. After delivering Brexit, reforming the civil service is the next major mission for Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser and pugilistic disrupter, and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister overseeing the agenda.
Cummings and Gove famously worked alongside Johnson to deliver Brexit in 2016 in the face of opposition from what they regarded as an out-of-touch, Europhile British establishment. The judiciary, the BBC, the House of Commons and the House of Lords have since felt the wrath of the Brexiters. Now it is Britain’s vast civil service — an army of close to half a million state employees who exist to support the government of the day — that is in the line of fire.
In a series of speeches and blogs, Cummings has painted a picture of a state machine that is good at back-covering and clock-watching, but desperately poor at project management and — his own personal fixation — the use of data. In 2019, he derided frequent claims from the establishment that the UK state is “a Rolls-Royce machine” as “blah, blah”. “It promotes people who focus on being important, not getting important things done, and it ruthlessly weeds out people who are dissenters, who are maverick and who have a different point of view,” he previously lamented in a 2014 lecture. “Almost no one is ever fired.”
Johnson, who became prime minister last year, is now making up for lost time. In an inversion of the tradition that it is ministers who are accountable for mistakes, at least half a dozen senior civil servants have been forced out of their jobs following a year of coronavirus blunders and other policy errors by the government. Not a single minister has been sacked. The battle lines have been drawn.
In 1854, Charles Trevelyan, then head of the Treasury, wrote a paper calling for a professional service of permanent government appointed on merit, not patronage. Since then, the civil service has remained broadly free of party politics. This is the opposite of the US, where a new president ushers in a complete clearout of officials in Washington. In the UK, the new prime minister enters Number 10 for the first time to be clapped in by those who, only hours earlier, were working for his or her deadliest political rival.
From prisons to schools to managing the economy, almost every aspect of daily life in the UK is influenced by the vast body of civil servants operating behind the scenes. It is these officials who carry out most of the actual work of running the country. With its bureaucratic palaces dotted along Whitehall — the central London thoroughfare from where an empire was once governed — the civil service has a strangely special hold on the British psyche: a small-c conservative organisation that embodies the best and worst of the country’s instincts.
The enduring affection for the 1980s BBC sitcom Yes Minister, which lampoons the awkward relationship between politicians and the officials who really control events, reflects much of the public attitude towards the wiring of the state. Monty Python also sent up the stuffy conservatism of the civil service in its “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch.
The service’s love of tradition and resistance to change has created many enemies — mainly reforming politicians who find themselves infuriated by its inability to deliver their will. For Johnson, Cummings and Gove, smashing the status quo is essential. Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the last Conservative manifesto, said in an opinion piece for The Telegraph: “The government understands that in five years it won’t be judged on the way the civil service is designed but on whether it has delivered on its promises. Public sector reform is the route to getting there.”
While the prime minister does not personally seek a war on Whitehall, according to those who know him well, Cummings and Gove are determined to reform some of the UK’s best-known and respected institutions. Their stated intent is to create a better system to support ministers and help transform a London-centric economy. Others fear this is merely a cover that will allow them to entrench power.
There are obvious parallels to Donald Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” of Washington DC’s political establishment. But whereas the US president primarily seeks to install politically aligned appointees to key roles, the agenda of Johnson and Cummings is more nuanced. Theodore Agnew, a minister at the Cabinet Office, the hub of the civil service, has warned the machine is “broken”, with a “desperate shortage of practical skills” and too many “urban metropolitan thinkers”.
Lead reformers believe the state is still overly dominated by Remain-minded officials. As well as bringing in more Brexit supporters, their goal is to introduce more experts and scientists with experience of the private sector. “Cognitive diversity” is the new watchword in Downing Street.
Morale, however, is already low; the service is drained after years of austerity and successive efforts to reform it by closing, merging and opening new ministries. Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government think-tank, says: “They’re right in a lot of the problems they’ve identified, they’re justified in a lot of their frustrations with the civil service. But I’m not convinced their solutions are well worked-out enough.”
For Cummings, shaking up the state is core to his political agenda. It is, he says, one of the main reasons he felt confident about leading the campaign to leave the EU. “The fact that [David] Cameron, [Jeremy] Heywood (the most powerful civil servant) et al did not understand many basic features of how the world works is why I and a few others gambled on the referendum,” he explained in a blog last summer. “We knew that the systemic dysfunction of our institutions and the influence of grotesque incompetents provided an opportunity for extreme leverage.”
Case’s arrival has been widely taken as a sign that Johnson is serious about reform. He was not the frontrunner in the race to succeed Mark Sedwill, who was abruptly ousted as head of the civil service earlier in the summer after falling out with Downing Street. In the 15 years since Case left academia, he has worked primarily in security and intelligence, including in Northern Ireland, the 2012 Olympic games and at GCHQ, and served as the private secretary to two prime ministers before heading to Kensington Palace in March 2018.
Unlike many previous cabinet secretaries, he has not run a major Whitehall department. Case did not apply for the top job, telling his friends that it was “too soon”. But the prime minister had other thoughts. He wanted Case to be “my Jeremy” — a reference to Heywood, who as cabinet secretary was an essential aide to several prime ministers before his death in 2018. Senior colleagues do not see Case as a natural revolutionary but do view him as “very political”. In other words, well attuned to the desires of his masters.
Johnson chose Case “to put the cat among the pigeons”, according to one well-placed official, who added: “He’s going to shake it all up.” His arrival has been met with intrigue and constant analysis, not least because he is seen as Johnson’s weapon to deliver reform. “Who is the defender? Who is going to watch our backs? We know they all sit in No 10 slagging off the civil service . . . will Simon defend us?” one senior Whitehall official asks.
Peter Hennessy, the historian and modern-day chronicler of Whitehall, oversaw Case’s doctorate on British intelligence agencies of the cold war period. He believes his former student will be “a very good reformer” because “he understands crown service to his last fibre and he doesn’t believe in a politicised civil service. He knows the history of it.
“If I was prime minister and I was in a hole, I’d want him next to me because he’s just so good,” Hennessy adds. “He’s calm, he’s clear, he’s thoughtful and he can see the relationship between things. And he has one of those temperaments that doesn’t rub up people the wrong way unnecessarily. He’s not a softie, he’s not a pushover.”
Gus O’Donnell, who was cabinet secretary from 2005 to 2011, says Case is very conscious of having to prove himself. “Simon is self-aware enough to know that this has come too early for him,” he says. “He has the huge advantage that he starts off with the full confidence of the PM. He’s also pretty much unsackable. It’s like Rishi [Sunak]: you can get rid of one chancellor but not two.”
Senior civil servants, meanwhile, hope that Case will deliver reform without bringing down the house. Gabriel Milland, a former senior civil servant who has worked closely with Cummings, says the changes will be major. “The civil service imagined that the government’s reforms would be limited to the kind they’re used to in the past — such as the machine-of-government changes and changing of office plaques. I don’t think they’ve sensed the scope of what is coming down the tracks.”
The three strands to the government’s reform mission are already starting to play out. First is the ousting of senior mandarins who are judged to be out of step with No 10’s agenda — part of the ancien régime. Cummings has said that the idea of a permanent civil service is “for the history books”.
Downing Street has not wasted time. In the most seismic shake-up of Whitehall in more than a decade, Sedwill is not the only departure. Six of the most senior officials running ministries have quit or been pushed out this year — the heads of the home, foreign, justice and education ministries, as well as the head of the government’s legal service and the service’s chief executive. Some, like Jonathan Slater at education, found themselves taking the rap for their minister’s failings; others, like Simon McDonald at the Foreign Office, found their jobs had disappeared. Allies of the prime minister made it known they were “Remainers”.
Some see this upheaval as a politicisation of the state, an effort to install Brexiters and those thought to be more pro-Conservative. Simon Fraser, who was a civil servant for 36 years and permanent secretary at the Foreign Office until 2015, says the changes are more about loyalty than bringing in new experts. “It’s not that top civil service appointments are becoming political in a party sense as in America, but some of them have been politicised by ministers choosing people who are seen as loyalists while pushing others out.”
It is a shift that Fraser warns will damage the institution. “Of course civil servants must loyally implement government policy, but if this becomes a trend it will weaken the objectivity of the civil service, which is still one of the great institutions we have, and mean ministers get less forthright advice.”
Helen Hayes, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, warns that “distracted ministers have spent far too much time playing musical chairs” behind closed doors instead of focusing on the coronavirus pandemic. “More troubling than the unacceptably high turnover of senior staff or incompetent management of the civil service by this government is their lack of transparency and accountability around reform,” she says. “Any competent government would be clear and transparent on their aims and approach to civil service reform, not trying to shroud them in mystery.”
Those close to Downing Street point out that the introduction of fixed terms for permanent secretaries of departments by the 2010-15 coalition government has naturally led to higher turnover. One well-placed Tory remarks: “I’m cynical about how any of this is going against the grain of the last 20 years. It’s evolution not revolution.”
Case appreciates that further senior departures will unsettle the whole civil service — and that he needs to shore up his own position. He has already formed a triumvirate with the more seasoned Tom Scholar, permanent secretary at the Treasury, and Alex Chisholm, the civil service chief operating officer. “Simon knows he has to prove he’s not just a No 10 toady, hence why he’s teamed up with Scholar and Chisholm to secure his position,” one Whitehall insider says. “He wants to work with reformers but knows he needs to protect civil servants.”
Scholar, in particular, has reason to be relieved at this new partnership. In February, he appeared on a “shitlist” of civil servants leaked by Downing Street — seen as part of an anti-Brexit mandarinate that the PM’s team wanted out. But the Treasury’s role in moving swiftly as coronavirus shut down the economy over the past few months has won it new fans in No 10. “Tom Scholar is central,” one official notes. “In a different world, he would be cabinet secretary.”
The second item on the reform agenda is more gradual: an effort to boost recruitment and skills. A better civil service, in the eyes of ministers, is essential for a better country. Its failings have been exposed by the coronavirus crisis, where Johnson found that pulling the levers of power did not result in immediate action. The foundation for addressing this is in a lecture given by Michael Gove earlier this summer at the Ditchley Foundation, a foreign policy think-tank. In it he warned that “the structures, ambitions and priorities of the government machine need to change if real reform is to be implemented and to endure”.
The sweeping lecture stated that more civil servants should be moved out of London to “reflect the full diversity of our United Kingdom”. Gove went on to call for “a broader and deeper pool of decision makers”, particularly those who better understand why the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016. “Westminster and Whitehall can become a looking-glass world. Government departments recruit in their own image, are influenced by the think-tanks and lobbyists who breathe the same London air and are socially rooted in assumptions which are inescapably metropolitan.”
How these lofty principles translate into reforms will become clear in a policy paper due in the next couple of months. According to government insiders who have worked on it, there is a great focus on people. “There’s an emphasis on experts; the need to be more representative of the UK as a whole; and a need for more diversity,” says one.
But while most civil servants tend to see diversity through the lens of race and sex, key political figures are focused on diversity of opinions. “Downing Street has a view that there’s an obsession with Whitehall’s approach to the diversity agenda that spills over into politics . . . the way civil servants have handled Black Lives Matter for example,” one government insider says. “Nobody is in favour of racial discrimination but there’s a sense staff are crossing the line into political action under the cover of diversity.”
Another insider agrees this will be part of the reforms. “In the middle of the pandemic, civil servants were fussing about diversity and inclusion workshops instead of looking at why black people were dying in bigger numbers. No 10 wants that to change.”
Cummings has, however, already been embarrassed by missteps in these areas. After last year’s election, he made a call for “weirdos and misfits” to apply for jobs at No 10. Two of his appointments backfired: Andrew Sabisky quit as a Downing Street contractor after a series of controversial comments were uncovered that were alleged to be racist and promote eugenics. Will O’Shea left after writing online comments that suggested police use live rounds on protesters. Neither has set back Cummings’ yearning for change.
Gove wants to empower ministerial offices, giving them more policy heft and better access to data — something Cummings has attempted to do by building a “Nasa-style mission control centre” in the Cabinet Office building. “The white paper argues that ministerial offices need boosting. There is a case for every secretary of state having their own mission control,” says one mandarin.
During the coronavirus crisis, it has become apparent to ministers and officials alike that Whitehall’s use of technology is woefully ill-prepared for both a pandemic and the modern age. “There were days when pulling coronavirus data out of Public Health England was like pulling teeth,” says one person present in the meetings.
“We were using whiteboards and calculators to tally the positive tests and death numbers. It was a total farce.” Data and digital is a “key weakness and an opportunity for reform”, particularly at the Government Digital Service. “GDS was world-leading 10 years ago. It still has a lot of expertise but needs a reboot for the next decade,” another insider says.
Overall, the mission is to shake up the stuffy traditions of Whitehall — encapsulated by Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby, who would sinuously seek to thwart whatever politician he was nominally serving. One supporter of the reforms says it is about “inculcating a more experimental, more playful culture that is less scared of failure”. Johnson’s inclination to sack civil servants rather than ministers when things go wrong is, however, not exactly an invitation to officials to take risks.
The Johnson government is also keen to tackle a third issue: public appointments. The head of the quasi-government bodies known as quangos wield significant influence in policy areas, from water to broadcasting. During Labour’s 13 years in power, many were led by individuals aligned to the party in an attempt to counteract the apolitical nature of the state.
For Johnson and Cummings, the desire for change is seen as simply redressing the balance, particularly given what they view as David Cameron’s failure to put more Tories into public positions. Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website, explains there has long been a charge within the party that “there is a bias in state institutions against rightwing applicants”. “It is important for the centre-right to pay as much attention to appointments as the centre-left,” he says. “There was a very clear pattern of New Labour sympathisers being appointed to notable roles, so there’s no reason the centre-right shouldn’t take a chunk.”
Goodman’s view is that the British state is “impartial but not always neutral” and “is always going to have a values system of some kind”. The departure of that significant cadre of permanent secretaries this year suggests that at the moment these inherent values may not chime with those of Johnson. “What Downing Street is saying about reform is not at all exceptional. But what is unusual is having a public tussle about it — some senior mandarins have clearly been encouraged out of the door,” he adds. “There is a world view [in government] that the civil service’s institutional mindset at the top is ill at ease with the one of this government.”
Yet eyebrows have been raised by some of the potential choices for high-profile public bodies. Downing Street wanted to install two trenchant, divisive figures: Charles Moore, biographer of Margaret Thatcher and rightwing commentator, to chair the BBC, and former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre to chair the broadcast regular Ofcom. Moore later ruled himself out for “personal reasons”.
The civil service has not reacted well. “They are taking the things we are most renowned for and tearing them down,” one senior official says. But one ally of Johnson said he was determined to push such changes through. “These appointments are really important. I’ve seen the power of these quangos. It’s absolutely vital for the government’s mission to improve their diversity of thought. It’s about a cultural change — Dacre and Moore are just the start. Labour stuffed these bodies with their people; now it’s our turn.”
Most current and former senior mandarins accept the need for change, even if they decry the methods the government is using; one describes the attitude of No 10 as “corrosive”. “What company would say that it’s crap because we have terrible staff?” asks another. “It doesn’t work. Good people will leave.”
Those at the heart of the revolution say the picture is more nuanced. “Individual civil servants are totally aware of the need for change — they appreciate the limitations of the civil service. They’re touchy and defensive and institutionally passive-aggressive but they get that the civil service needs more technical and professional skills,” says an ally of Cummings.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office confirmed “an ambitious programme for government reform” had been launched earlier this year, which included “engaging with staff across the country”.
Nick Macpherson, who headed the Treasury from 2005 to 2016, says that much of the government’s agenda is correct but that its promises of more expertise are not being followed up by its actions. “The civil service does need to change: it needs more expertise and its management lags the private sector . . . but experience teaches me to focus on actions rather than words.”
Dave Penman, head of the FDA, the union that represents senior civil servants, reckons that while “every government talks about civil service reform”, the approach of the Johnson government is a marked change. “What is different this time, there appears to be a very deliberate policy to break things up and create an instability in the system. They are doing things they don’t need to do to effect the changes they want. I don’t think it’s all 4D chess plotted out, some of it is instinctive — how they’re treating people in particular. They don’t really care about the consequences or relish them.”
In his conversations with civil servants, Penman says he has “never heard them talk about a government like this”. He suggests officials are filled with fear about who is going to be sacked next and whether they are being monitored for their loyalty. “There is an awful lot of chaos and short-termism. It’s about who they trust and who is on side — it’s a very Trumpian approach.”
Yet Tories say the end goal is making the civil service better. “Michael and No 10 have the highest respect for the senior officials around them, they rely on them and rate them extraordinarily highly. Our overall impression is there are nuggets of brilliance across Whitehall,” says a government aide.
Johnson, Cummings and Gove are three men in a hurry: the next election may not be for another three or four years, but their revolution will have much deeper consequences. With their picks leading Whitehall departments, new officials recruited in their image and Conservative allies running public bodies, the British state will be smashed and rebuilt in the coming years.
Hennessy warns that moving too quickly risks huge damage to the country’s reputation: “You’ve got to think of it in terms of generations, because it’s not a quick-fix problem. You might get some ego satisfaction about biffing them and shouting at them and getting headlines all the time, but that’s not what the whole point is . . . you’ve got to do it without politicising it. Because if we politicise the senior civil service, that will be an own goal of national and monumental proportions.”
Sebastian Payne is the FT’s Whitehall correspondent. George Parker is the FT’s political editor
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first.
Help us to become independent in PANDEMIC COVID-19. Contribute to diligent Authors.