The Tories fought the blob: The blob won
Officials say they are doing their best to uphold their traditional neutrality — but right-wing Conservatives aren’t buying it.
LONDON — Britain’s civil service appears to be taking out ministers left, right and center. So is this the “blob” fighting back?
A growing list of senior ministers has been forced to quit after clashing with government officials, whether directly or indirectly.
Having put the nail in the coffin of Boris Johnson’s premiership and shrugged off the hapless Liz Truss, it was civil servants who ensured the demise of Rishi Sunak’s deputy, Dominic Raab, after a bullying inquiry.
Right-leaning Tories are now up in arms at questions over the conduct and performance of Home Secretary Suella Braverman, fearing she could be next in line for defenestration by the “snivel service.”
A section of the Conservative Party explains recent events as a coordinated coup by what they call the “blob”: a mass of pathetic, left-leaning, Remain-supporting functionaries trying to block the government’s agenda.
Others say the current confrontation between elected ministers and Whitehall mandarins can not be so simply explained and is rooted in a toxic mix of briefing and counter-briefing — plenty of which is carried out by political apparatchiks, not just their theoretically neutral civil service colleagues.
“I don’t think it’s true that Whitehall is at war with ministers,” said one former civil servant, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “But if it were, let’s remember who fired the first shots.”
One current senior official said the breakdown in trust between the Tories and Whitehall was a worry for top civil servants as well as the prime minister and his team. Flare-ups between officials and ministers are now far more often aired in public, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.
“I don’t think we have ever had a government that has criticized the civil service so publicly or so often as this one,” the senior official said. “People have found it really hard to take.”
Whitehall staff surveys confirm the morale problems.
And there is a “real concern” among senior leaders in the civil service and among ministers that officials are increasingly speaking out, the person said. “People are taking matters into their own hands.”
Attacks on the civil service as a bastion of inefficiency and intransigence are nothing new, with horror stories of Whitehall waste or misguided initiatives popping up regularly in right-of-center papers.
Relations deteriorated markedly, however, after the vote to leave the EU and again under the reign of Johnson.
Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, infamously warned of “a hard rain” coming to fall on an “incoherent” Cabinet Office — which has overall responsibility for government departments — signaling the beginning of more open hostilities between Westminster and Whitehall.
Johnson went on to spark outrage by allowing then Home Secretary Priti Patel to keep her job after an ethics inquiry found she had bullied staff, while then-senior Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg waged a campaign against supposedly work-shy civil servants who continued to work from home as the pandemic eased.
A former official who worked in several departments said civil servants played their own part in the conflict, however, recounting that senior officials “would sit in front of a minister in a meeting, agree to actions, come out of the meeting and then say ‘that’s not possible, we can’t do that.’ But they wouldn’t say it to the minister in the room.”
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office insisted: “The civil service continues to work closely and collaboratively with ministers to deliver for the public and on the government’s priorities.”
MPs on the right of the Conservative Party insist ministers are being deliberately taken out by officials. Tory backbencher Marco Longhi said this week: “I believe there’s been a witch hunt against Boris, I believe that Dominic Raab has had to resign simply for doing his job and expecting others to do the same.”
Some officials suggest, however, that if civil servants did indeed become more muscular under Johnson, it was only because they were forced into it.
“It would have been increasingly difficult for civil servants because he was indifferent to standards,” said a former permanent secretary, the chief official in a government department, regarding Johnson. “I think they found that quite a searing experience.”
A spokesman for Johnson said: “In reality, Mr. Johnson had an excellent working relationship with civil servants.”
No secret club
While civil servants may have won some important battles recently, others say reports of a grand conspiracy may have been exaggerated.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union, which represents civil servants, said: “Whether it’s Raab, Patel, or now Braverman or Johnson, they are all ministers who have done things wrong, and what they’re doing is getting caught out.”
A second former permanent secretary dismissed the idea of “people meeting up in the Atheneum [a London club]” in order to plot. “There is no central control or discipline,” they said.
On the contrary, a few officials say, their colleagues are becoming more cautious because of their collective professionalism being called into question.
Another factor in sour relations may be the looming expiry date of the government.
“Civil servants enjoy working for governments that have a five- or 10-year time horizon,” said the Institute for Government’s Alex Thomas. “You have a clear program. Whoever wins the next election, we’re in a slightly odd interregnum period at the moment, which is more kind of transactional and short-termist.”
The breakdown of trust between Westminster and Whitehall is not only damaging to those who work there, but also for the small matter of running the country.
“When Cabinet Office morale is on the floor and it can’t do its coordination job, you have a big problem in government,” the first ex-permanent secretary quoted above said.
Several civil servants past and present agreed that things had already improved under Sunak.
“The stories about ‘the blob’ are much easier to let wash over you when you know it comes from the backbenchers rather than government ministers, as felt the case under Boris Johnson,” a Whitehall official commented.
Others think Sunak has not done enough to actively defend the civil service and the time is overdue for a high-profile reset.
The impetus may fall to whoever walks into No. 10 after the next election, whether that be Sunak or his Labour rival Keir Starmer, armed as they will be with a new mandate and a manifesto to carry out.
Annabelle Dickson and Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.