Does the Raab debacle herald a political civil service revolution?
Students of politics are taught how our system of government supposedly works – that the leader of the political party with a majority in the Commons – or thought most likely to be able to command one – is invited to become Prime Minister, with ministers also appointed by the Crown on the advice of that Prime Minister.
That ministers are supported by an independent permanent civil service – employees of the Crown – to support ministers in delivering their programme for government, with equal professionalism no matter which party is in power. That, fundamentally, ministers decide, officials advise.
The reality of course is much more nuanced and recent developments in Westminster have brought the inevitable tensions within our system to the fore.
There is a view within the Conservative Party – similar to one held about the BBC – that the civil service is a left of centre blob, with its own partial agenda, frustrating the will of ministers that want to drive through reforms, including manifesto commitments.
The recent appointment of Sue Gray, who investigated Boris Johnson’s administration over ‘partygate’, as Chief of Staff to Labour leader Keir Starmer is, as they see it, clear evidence of this, as is what they view to have been the orchestrated ousting Dominic Raab as Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary.
The civil service does wield significant power and influence, merely by the fact that it holds huge amounts of information, analysis and advice (some of which isn’t disclosed from one government to another). Also because it is officials that develop policy options, assess them and decide how they are presented to ministers.
There is a legitimate question as to whether anyone can completely put aside their world view and personal politics in undertaking their work. But history shows us that ministers from all parties have been frustrated by officials during their time in office.
Rather than seeking to frustrate the Conservative government because of its institutional politics, I suspect the capability of some officials, the high turnover within many departments and a lack of individual accountability are the biggest issues with the service and have been for some time.
As for Dominic Raab, while he sealed his own fate by pre-agreeing to resign if he was found to have behaved inappropriately, I tend to think he has been rather hard done by. I say that without knowing the impact of his actions on the officials concerned. However, from my thirty-plus years in business and politics, having to fall on your sword for not realising that you were making officials uncomfortable through your challenging, direct approach, or for very strongly criticising an official who went beyond their mandate in negotiating a crucial international deal, seems harsh.
There is, I believe, some merit to his argument that this case could set a tricky precedent for future ministers. What I do know is that there will be many who have served as both ministers and officials, including during the New Labour years under Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Alistair Campbell etc., who will think times have unrecognisably changed.
There are already calls from some for a more politicised civil service. Like calls for an elected second chamber, I think that would be a mistake and lead to worse public policy outcomes, not better. In the meantime, Rishi Sunak, as Prime Minister and also Minister for the Civil Service, will be working to ensure the tensions that breached the surface in such a public way are eased quickly and the administration of government and implementation of policy works efficiently and smoothly.
Dominic Raab’s experience again reminds us that everyone in politics is replaceable. The business of government – like the civil service – goes on, and on. On which, the coming month will of course be dominated by the Coronation of the King and Queen, a strong reminder of the foundation on which our whole governmental, legislative, and judicial systems are based.
This month will also see the Commons committee stage of the Finance Bill, which implements March’s Budget measures, while key votes at Report Stage on both that and the Financial Services and Markets Bill are likely to happen in early June. The Government has also just published a major Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, with new powers for the Competition and Markets Authority, greater protections for consumers around unfair terms in contracts, measures to crack down on fake reviews and strengthening alternative dispute resolution arrangements.
Significantly, the CMA will be able to investigate potential breaches of consumer law itself and directly impose financial penalties of up to 10% of global annual turnover for businesses. Although a date for its Second Reading (where the principles of the legislation are debated) is still to be set, it is likely to be sometime before the last week of May, when the Commons is expected to start its Whitsun recess.