Brexit

Civil service revolting. Will Sir Jeremy Heywood be next?

Mandarins are tired of being blamed for bad decisions by politicians

BY Iain Martin | iainmartin1   /  3 January 2017

I have received interesting feedback about the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s ambassador to the EU. Or more specifically, about the piece I wrote hailing him as an unintentional hero of the Brexit movement. Without the botched Cameron renegotiation in which Rogers was a key player then there might have been no vote to Leave. A better deal might have swung it for Remain, but officialdom would not hear of it. Or that’s the theory.

The long legacy of the EU’s impact on British policy-making and civil service mindset (you can’t do that, Berlin will be in a bad mood, yes it’s a five course dinner tonight, the chefs at the European Commission are very good) certainly played a part. But what is becoming clear is that there is something broader and bigger brewing, and a senior civil service revolt – or at least a flexing of muscles – is underway ahead of the triggering of Article 50. It is also connected to the style of the May administration, however. There is trouble ahead.

I pass on the following from the last few hours:

1) Allies of Rogers are sick of the mandarins (who in office cannot answer back) getting the blame for poor decisions made by politicians. It has been pointed out that all along Rogers was trying to get Team Cameron to face up to the enormity of the renegotiation and urging them to prepare for it properly rather than patching it together at the last moment, which is what they did. Says one former mandarin: “The people who buggered up the renegotiation and Britain’s relationship with the EU were the politicians, led by David Cameron, supported by his advisors.” This interpretation is backed up by respected journalists on the ground such as Bruno Waterfield, well-connected and insightful of Brussels, who point out that Rogers tried to warn Cameron in 2012 that the EU could not be redesigned on the hoof.

2) Sir Nick Macpherson appears to have just let off the most extraordinarily powerful tweet. It’s a total zinger. A complete whizzpopper. The mandarin equivalent of Trump declaring war on China. The former Perm Sec at the Treasury, a respected figure from the financial crisis era when Gordon Brown’s end of boom and bust experiment went bang, this afternoon said:

“Ivan Rogers huge loss. Can’t understand wilful&total destruction of EU expertise, with Cunliffe,Ellam&Scholar also out of loop.#amateurism.

Yes, that’s the former Treasury Permanent Secretary describing the handling of Brexit by May’s team as hashtag amateurism.

3) Oh, and Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, former rival to Macpherson, is now in a position that might look weak to some in Number 10 but is actually very strong. Relations with key parts of Team May are terribly tricky, I am reliably informed. Heywood sees himself as a policy brain, adept at solving policy problems for Prime Ministers but Team May thinks it has quite enough of that itself, thank you very much. It does not help that Heywood is so closely associated with Blair, Brown and Cameron. That experience might be thought an advantage, but not by everyone close to the current Prime Minister. This has been bubbling for a while, although the Rogers resignation changes the dynamic in Heywood’s favour. It is pointed out – by well-placed observers – that Number 10, and Theresa May, really cannot afford to lose him now. Or if something nasty does explode, his departure might then be seen through the prism of a collapsing government machine. Not good.

4) Everyone will now deny that there is a problem. It is the British way. Blame it on post-Christmas torpor. Too much Turkey. New Year nerves. (Prime Minister makes stern face, announces inquiry, tells everyone to pull their socks up). But it is only day three of 2017, and already it is clear that it is going to be an eventful and fascinating year on the Whitehall front.

I must say, I regard all this as quite healthy, as more evidence of the British machine coming back to life after the referendum and the EU nightmare, much as happened over parliamentary sovereignty and the rights of the Commons during the Article 50 court case. That’s just my view. The civil service, in any case, needs to find its place and get out of a Brussels Says No mentality.