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US NewsWhitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government

11:40  19 july  2019
11:40  19 july  2019 Source:   ft.com

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Inside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office building on Whitehall in London, some still call it “Liberation Day”. Just over a year ago, on July 9, 2018, Boris Johnson suddenly announced he would be resigning as Britain’s foreign secretary because he could no longer support Theresa May’s planned Brexit deal.

“Unpredictable, gaffe-prone, inconsistent, unfocused, we were delighted to see the back of him,” says one diplomat, reflecting on Mr Johnson’s two years in post and the emotions coursing through the Foreign Office that day. “You could almost touch the sense of relief around the place that he was leaving.”

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One year on, however, and Mr Johnson is set for a comeback — and this time not as the head of the Foreign Office but the entire government machine. If, as expected, he wins next week’s Conservative leadership election, it will be not just one department but the 5,500 senior officials working across Whitehall who will wonder about the implications.

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Among civil servants, there is obvious concern over whether Mr Johnson can change his style of working. But three years after the Brexit referendum there is also a much bigger set of questions which goes to the heart of how Britain’s civil service operates. Will the new prime minister put an end to the constant attacks by his Conservative allies on officials who, they claim, are trying to stop Brexit happening? Or will Mr Johnson intensify the war between hard Brexiters and mandarins and risk doing lasting damage to the civil service?

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Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government © Reuters Boris Johnson arrives at offices in London this morning.

For nearly 170 years, Britain’s civil servants have operated on the principles set out in 1854 by two Victorian statesmen — Stafford Northcote and CE Trevelyan. Under their system, the officials working across Whitehall are non-partisan, politically neutral and speak truth to power behind closed doors.

In the US and some other nations, civil servants come and go with each new administration under a so-called “spoils system”. By contrast, the Northcote-Trevelyan principles created a professional civil service that is admired throughout the world.

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Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government

Brexit, however, has changed all that. It is, says Peter Hennessy, a leading historian of Whitehall, “the nearest thing we have to a war of religion coursing through the corridors of power”. It has therefore brought Whitehall under acute strain. “The tension between ministers and their officials is worse than it has ever been.”

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Moreover, all this comes as Whitehall faces its biggest bureaucratic challenge since the second world war in grappling with the possibility of a no-deal exit from the EU. “People are worn out by Brexit,” says Lord Hennessy. “It has sucked the life out of everything.”

Ministers, Conservative Brexiters and rightwing populists regularly criticise Whitehall officials for obstructing the Brexit project. Nigel Farage, the head of the Brexit party, has referred to the civil service as the “enemy within”, determined to sabotage Britain’s departure. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading supporter of Mr Johnson, has described the Treasury as “a bastion of Remoanerism” — the MP referring to the way Brexiters describe people who struggle to accept that the Remain side lost the 2016 referendum.

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Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government © PA Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary, outside the Foreign Office in 2018.

These criticisms have led to a string of attacks on some of the service’s leading figures as they have struggled with Brexit policy. In 2017, Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ambassador to the EU, resigned after warning Theresa May that her plans for a “diamond hard Brexit” would not work. Olly Robbins, Mrs May’s principal adviser on Brexit, has been vilified by rightwingers for negotiating a compromise they deemed as “vassalage”. Jon Thompson, the head of HM Revenue & Customs, received death threats after advising that a post-Brexit customs plan preferred by Brexiters would cost up to £20bn.

Last week’s resignation of Kim Darroch as British ambassador to Washington took the alarm across Whitehall to a new level. He had been highly critical of Donald Trump in confidential diplomatic telegrams that were leaked to a newspaper. But although Mr Trump immediately lambasted Sir Kim, Mr Johnson refused to back the ambassador publicly in a televised debate, forcing the diplomat’s resignation.

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“People are shaken,” Simon McDonald, head of the Foreign Office, told MPs last week as he tried to capture the reaction of his staff. “The basis on which we have worked all our careers suddenly feels challenged.”

Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government © Getty Pro-Brexit protesters outside Parliament last year.

Dave Penman, head of the FDA, the trade union for senior civil servants, was even more forthright. “We’re witnessing a disturbing pattern emerge, where the brightest and best civil servants are being forced out of their jobs due to relentless attacks from politicians and some sections of the media,” he says.

Tory Brexiter MPs are far from being the only threat to Whitehall’s culture. Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition Labour party has talked about how, after winning an election, it wants to train Treasury officials to become more conversant with the party’s economic theories.

“People close to Corbyn believe the civil service has been captured by neoliberal thinking and needs re-educating,” says Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government think-tank. “It’s an idea that could do serious damage if it forces civil servants to quit.”

But as Mr Johnson prepares to enter Number 10, it is his key Brexiter allies in parliament who are putting the civil service under the most pressure. One ally, Bernard Jenkin, regrets the attacks on Sir Kim but is infuriated at the way former diplomats and permanent secretaries regularly speak out against Brexit: “It reinforces the impression that our impartial civil service is anything but impartial on the EU question.”

Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government © Getty Pro-Brexit and Remainer protesters outside Parliament last year.

Mark Francois, vice-chairman of the European Research Group of Conservative hard Brexiters, is more directly critical of officials. “It is palpably ridiculous to bang on about civil service impartiality when the world and his wife knows that the senior civil service was overwhelmingly pro-Remain . . . We could have a more honest and grown-up debate if those participating were to declare their true colours, rather than pretending to be impartial when many of them clearly are not.”

Defenders of the civil service say these attacks are unfair. “I imagine that most of the civil service were indeed Remainers at the 2016 referendum,” says Lord Hennessy. “But politicians don’t realise that civil servants can be fascinated by politics while also being strongly non-partisan in their jobs.”

One former permanent secretary argues that, far from obstructing Brexit, civil servants are “bending over backwards” to get Brexit done, and are being asked to embrace unrealistic ideas. “There was one occasion when all permanent secretaries were summoned to Number 10 and told to come up with arguments for why Mrs May was right to say ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. The whole exercise was utterly absurd.”

This points to the issue which many mandarins believe is central to the tensions with ministers: the fact that they are often the people who have to point out the flaws in the Brexit project to ministers who believe in it.

Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government © Getty Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage calls the civil service the 'enemy within'.

“The civil service is comfortable with the language of evidence, which is largely economic evidence,” says Jill Rutter, a former senior civil servant and also now at the IFG. “But Brexit is a values project. Inevitably, this is why clashes keep happening.”

For many officials, the criticism over their commitment to Brexit comes at a demanding time. Brexit has generated an extraordinary workload across Whitehall, which needs to create new regulatory bodies, agree new trade treaties and help pass reams of domestic legislation as well as prepare for no deal.

In order to accomplish these tasks, the civil service has seen a huge personnel upheaval since 2016, with the creation of new ministries — the Department for Exiting the EU and the Department for International Trade. If the next prime minister gets a Brexit deal through the Commons this autumn, many officials believe another overhaul will be needed in the Whitehall architecture to co-ordinate departments for the years of UK-EU trade negotiations that lie ahead.

But it is preparations for a possible no-deal Brexit this autumn that are proving especially demanding. Thousands of civil servants were moved from their departments into emergency units to try and manage no-deal contingencies in the run-up to the March 29 deadline this year. When that deadline was extended, officials returned to their departments but are now being dragged back to those units ahead of a possible no-deal Brexit on October 31.

Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government © Getty The civil service fears it will become politicised under a Johnson premiership.

“All this churn is taking its toll on people, some of it psychological,” says one Whitehall insider. “At Dexeu, for example, two out of three directors-general and five of 10 directors will have changed over the past six months.”

Where civil servants are most uncertain is in what to expect from Mr Johnson. “The senior civil service has always attracted people who, as undergraduates, did their essays on time and in good order,” says Lord Hennessy. “But Boris does not have an orderly, tidy or administrative mind and no sense of the architectonics of government. [While] the civil service has always liked swash and buckle in a prime minister. It dreads chaos.”

If Mr Johnson wins the race for Number 10 against his rival Jeremy Hunt, several appointments will signal how he wants to govern. One issue will be whom he appoints as ambassador to Washington to replace Kim Darroch. The Foreign Office has several high-profile candidates but Mr Johnson could accede to Brexiters’ wishes by appointing a political or business figure. “If he does that, it will be a demoralising signal for the civil service after what has happened to Kim,” says a former top civil servant.

Another decision will be what Mr Johnson does with the cabinet secretary, who is the head of the civil service. The tradition in Whitehall is that an incoming prime minister does not immediately change this pivotal figure, who embodies the principle of continuous service. But Mark Sedwill, the incumbent, is disliked by Brexiters, in part because he produced a lengthy letter to cabinet ministers last March spelling out the damage that a no-deal Brexit would do to the UK economy.

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Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government
Whitehall fears Brexit backlash from a Johnson government

“It would be incredibly damaging if Boris came in and moved Mark,” says the former Whitehall official. “It would be an offence against the system.”

Some leading Whitehall figures are confident that Mr Johnson will be more circumspect. “If Boris becomes prime minister the number one thing he would want to be is a successful prime minister,” says Gus O’Donnell, former cabinet secretary.

“That means he needs to work very well with the civil service. I have seen a number of incoming prime ministers come through the doors of Number 10. After as little as 24 hours, they were completely devoted to their private office, saying: ‘For goodness sake, don’t move these people.’”

But many current and former Whitehall officials and analysts are pessimistic about what will happen to the civil service in the long run. They fear that a Johnson government will break Whitehall’s non-partisan culture and force officials to be much more political.

“The danger is that because Britain will be desperate for trade deals after Brexit, many aspects of policy will be subsumed under the need to promote trade,” says the IFG’s Ms Maddox. “A selling job is an honourable thing for diplomats and officials to do but it is very different to the advisory role that they now have.”

Others are worried about how Whitehall’s reputation will be affected if there is a no-deal Brexit this autumn and it is followed by significant economic disruption. “My fear is that politicians and MPs will not want to take the blame for the mess that follows,” says a senior Whitehall figure. “Instead, the politicians will accuse the civil servants of having got the planning wrong. It will be easier for them to pass on the blame if we don’t have a clear explanation to the public of the potential damage that no deal will do before we get to October 31.”

Vernon Bogdanor, a leading constitutional historian, fears the worst for Whitehall. “Soon after the referendum, a friend of mine in the Foreign Office said to me, ‘There is only one certainty about Brexit. Whatever happens, the civil service will get the blame.’ That is one prediction that is certainly coming true.”

But as they wait for Mr Johnson to enter Downing Street and set out his approach to Brexit, most officials will be determined to stick by the civil service’s non-partisan tradition. One Whitehall expert likes to think all officials will remember the words of Robert Vansittart, a senior diplomat in the 1930s: “The soul of our service is the loyalty with which we execute ordained error.”

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