3 March 2023

The myth of civil service impartiality matters – and Sue Gray risks badly undermining it


Jill Rutter, a former mandarin now installed at their Valhalla, the Institute for Government, has this to say of Sue Gray’s decision to accept the job of Chief of Staff to Sir Keir Starmer:

‘I think the Gray move is a mistake, but perhaps it was seeing the massive failure of leadership laid bare during the partygate inquiry that tipped Sue into deciding she needed to help another party, with a commitment to raise standards, to prepare to govern.’

On the face of it, Rutter’s comment seems to seek a sensible middle course between the madder factions which have rapidly emerged on the issue. It doesn’t indulge the idea that the move is somehow proof that the Partygate enquiry was a Labour plot, but nor does it try and pretend that there isn’t a problem with someone who played so central a role in an extended period of Conservative government taking a senior job with the Opposition.

However, I think it nonetheless illustrates the extent to which understandable opposition to Boris Johnson has impaired the judgement of some of his critics. Because if Rutter’s reading is right, Gray’s political judgement (and she is now stepping into the political arena, so this matters) is extraordinarily bad.

The last thing you want to do, if your goal is to buttress the position of the Civil Service and the various processes it oversees, is to make it a party-political issue. The root problem of mounting Tory mistrust of various parts of the establishment – a tendency that extends beyond the Johnsonite hard core – is very obviously not helped by having the civil servant who played a leading role in bringing down a prime minister join the opposite party.

And one doesn’t actually need to think that Gray was secretly taking orders from Victoria Street to recognise that headlines like ‘Is This Proof The Partygate Probe Was A Labour Plot?’ are a problem.

And it is especially dangerous if, as currently seems likely, Labour win the next election and the Conservatives enter a perhaps prolonged spell in opposition. Absence does not always make the heart grow fonder, and one can well imagine attitudes towards officialdom curdling further when the party is no longer working alongside civil servants day to day.

It’s important to recognise that this shift in attitudes is far from baseless. Elements within the Civil Service have started making a habit of giving anonymous, hostile briefings to the press about ministers and policies they dislike. 

Likewise, progressives have sometimes adopted a distinctly Johnsonian (‘my policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it’) attitude towards the courts, celebrating the judiciary adopting a more assertive role in the wake of the Human Rights Act and then acting outraged when attitudes towards the judiciary on the right evolve accordingly.

Returning to Partygate, the role played by Gray, and the whole question of official oversight of politicians, is necessarily a very sensitive one.

Politics is a unique arena; MPs are representatives before they are public employees, and the Cabinet is the highest expression of that. It is very difficult, if not actually impossible, to reconcile this democratic imperative with the norms of modern HR culture, in which the staff side of a corporate hierarchy is empowered to enforce a corporate culture – and thus, increasingly, various progressive norms – on the line workers.

That’s why, for example, the Ministerial Code is ultimately and rightly a question of the Prime Minister’s discretion. It is up to the leader of the elected government to decide who serves in their Cabinet, and for either the House of Commons or the nation to hold them to account for that at the ballot box.

Calls for officials such as ethics advisers to have a more decisive role in that process are problematic enough as it is. If one side of British politics comes to believe that officialdom is enemy territory, that will greatly magnify the problem – and that is true whether you individually believe their analysis is correct or not.

Ultimately, the idea of truly impartial institutions has always been something of a fiction, not just because institutions always tend to further their own interests but also because they are staffed by people, who are as prone to political views as anyone else – and in the Civil Service arguably more than many, given that civil servants have chosen a career in public service.

But the myth of impartiality matters and can have a power all its own, even if it’s never entirely true. A strong culture of impartial service can impress itself on those who enter the institution. Thus the signals sent by those at the very top of it matter, and whether or not it was her intent, Gray taking a job with Starmer is unlikely to dissuade civil servants already minded to cultivate their political connections with the currency at their disposal: dirt on the Government.

I don’t want this argument to be misread as exonerating the Conservatives. Too often, one suspects their fury at the Civil Service is displacement activity. On issue after issue, successive governments have struggled to actually achieve anything; it’s easier to blame that on an external conspiracy than personal failings.

The result looks like a sort of political animism, where any adverse phenomenon is ascribed malicious agency, like the angry gods our ancestors once dreamt into storm clouds. If in the future the Conservatives want to be more effective in government, they should attend to the beam in their own eye before looking too energetically for motes in the eyes of others.

But the fact the Tories are ultimately responsible for sorting themselves out doesn’t mean that those who pose as defenders of impartial, apolitical institutes get a pass from the need to actually act to ensure said institutions maintain credibility with all sides. If they preside over a mass exodus of the right, they will share the blame for where Britain ends up.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.