24 February 2020

The inept hit job on Priti Patel is the hallmark of an officer class in revolt

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It’s customary to start any discussion about the performance of our civil service with the disclaimer that it’s mostly brilliant. So, I won’t. Not because there aren’t some brilliant people in it – there are – but because this tiresomely routine genuflection hides a multitude of sins.

Priti Patel’s ‘sins’ are an unholy alliance for senior pen pushers. She’s an assertive, Leave-supporting Conservative brown woman with power and a populist agenda in the dysfunctional Home Office where I worked as a senior civil servant until 2012.

None of these inconvenient truths may dare speak their names, of course. But a department steeped in the arts of regressive insurgency has more than one way to skin a cat. The inept hit job on her – almost certainly manufactured by disaffected mandarins – is straight from the administrative officer class playbook. It’s come to something when even the spooks are forced out of the shadows to deny that Patel is a security risk. The gloves are off.

Senior civil servants have enormous informal power to scupper policies and confound ministers with a purpose if the action doesn’t conform with their prevailing cultural orthodoxy. Culture is what happens when you aren’t around, and so an eternal merry-go-round of new Secretaries of State and junior ministers in a politics mesmerised by Brexit has proved an ideal environment to constrain policies that many bureaucrats simply don’t like.

The usual defence of inertia is that the job of the civil service is to ‘advise and warn’. When this elides into obstruction of a Government defending a severely contingent 80-seat majority, it’s time to buy popcorn.

Too often, the mandarins see themselves primarily as a civilised bulwark against the worst instincts of the ruling party. Where these instincts match, such as in the Blair era, huge and often beneficial social change was possible with the civil service as willing instruments of delivery. When there is discord – when populist policies crash against a progressive shore, there is friction and resistance.

I’ve no idea whether Priti Patel is a bully or not and neither do all those commentators rowing in behind the conveniently timed anonymous allegations, using language that would be ‘verboten’ if she was anything other than a Conservative with a strong sense of what people outside the Westminster bubble care about. That said, as someone who has experienced the sclerotic machinations of the Home Office first-hand, I do have an innate sympathy for anyone who encounters that last refuge of the inept – bullying.

I have encountered authentic bullies in my time in public service and done my damndest to confront and get rid of them. These are damaged people – they exist in all echelons of the civil service as elsewhere – who derive genuine pleasure from making people miserable as the end product of their working style. The problem is that like the incompetent (they are often the same people) they are profoundly difficult to sack and instead often get promoted out of harm’s way to be someone else’s problem.

But I have also encountered many more people in public service who allege bullying or go off sick with ‘stress’ at the point where they are facing exposure and accountability for failure to deliver. This can also be the final throw of the dice for the bureaucrat who, having used all his obfuscatory ammunition to no effect, deploys the ‘B’ word.

To put it bluntly, people burying their kids due to knife crime, fearful about violent extremism, plagued by a collapse of civility and antisocial behaviour, marooned in postcodes where the only visible authority is a parking ticket aren’t interested in the bruised feelings of some well-heeled permanent secretaries. They want things done.

Their preference will be to back a Home Secretary who is on their side and impatient for results. The political rhymes with the personal. And that constituency dwarfs the Whitehall machine.

Patel is accused of creating an “atmosphere of fear” in the Home office and of “frequently encouraging behaviour outside the rule of law”. The usual faceless ‘insider’ quotes are deployed to this end. Social media is littered with the usual obscene vilification of her. These charges are very serious – and they could be true, but the intensity of the denials from the Government suggests otherwise.

There’s also more than a whiff of misogyny and – dare I say it – racism about her white-collar/chattering class monstering. These are people who are unable to see Conservatism as more than a kind of temporary pathology to contain and if possible neutralise until a more sentient politics emerges.

The Home Secretary will be judged by the Prime Minister and the ballot box on her competence to deliver some of the most difficult and contentious priorities in Government. Keeping people safe in newly held Conservative territory will matter far more to this new ‘bloody difficult’ woman than the delicate sensibilities of Britain’s administrative elite. They had better get used to it. Or find another job.

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Ian Acheson is a former Director of Community Safety for the Home Office for South West England.