The writer is senior research fellow at UK in a Changing Europe and a former senior civil servant in HM Treasury, 10 Downing Street and Defra
The British foreign secretary takes a private jet to Australia for a work trip, rather than a scheduled airline. The Home Office Twitter account denounces “activist” lawyers. The Cabinet Office opens up a VIP lane to fast track bids for PPE contracts. The Northern Ireland secretary announces legislation to allow the UK to break international law in “specific and limited” ways. The leader of the House of Commons travels to Balmoral to ask the Queen for an extended prorogation of parliament.
These incidents may seem disparate. But the unifying theme is that, hearing of them, an earlier generation of civil servants would probably have sucked their teeth and uttered the damning word “inadvisable”.
Our system of government rests on a collection of messy conventions and officials, the guardians of these norms, would have warned the minister that although perhaps a case could be made — and they perfectly understood the political pressure — on balance these were, at best, unwise actions and the minister should desist.
The politician would bristle, perhaps moan slightly to their private secretary or special adviser about bureaucratic rules and then, usually, acquiesce.
No longer. Boris Johnson’s government has shown itself undeterred by the threat of being called out for rule-breaking, extravagance, inappropriate use of government contracts or communications, even for embarrassing the Queen. Such transgressions seem to be regarded as badges of honour rather than a sign of bad judgment. The dull propriety that constrained previous governments has been thrown off with as much glee as have the shackles of the European Court of Justice.
That culture of norm breaking has now come back to bite the prime minister and his team at Downing Street. Whatever Whitehall’s inquisitor-in-chief, Sue Gray — and the Metropolitan police — have to say about No 10’s packed programme of “work events” while the rest of the country was in lockdown, we already know that the credibility of the prime minister has been damaged. Trust in government has plummeted and those at the top of the administration have had to spend time and effort getting their stories straight, rather than making progress on other pressing governance issues.
The culture in No 10 seems to have been to work hard, drink hard and, quite possibly, party hard. Johnson may seek to deflect blame. He may promise yet another overhaul of his team, sacking errant civil servants and advisers. But civil servants alone did not create the culture that is at the heart of this government. It took its cues from two people: Johnson himself and Dominic Cummings, his former right-hand man.
Cummings made it clear from the start that he wanted to recruit people into a Downing Street bubble where work-life balance was for wimps. But his impact was wider. His “hard rain” washed away the Home Office permanent secretary when he tried to stand up to the home secretary’s bullying of staff, the PM’s standards adviser Sir Alex Allan, the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office and the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, among others. Cummings even claimed that he had appointed Sedwill’s successor, Simon Case.
An inexperienced cabinet secretary with such limited independent authority was always going to find it difficult to remind the prime minister or his colleagues to observe the rules — and that appearances sometimes really do matter. If other permanent secretaries want to stick their necks out and say “no” to a transgressive minister, they cannot now feel confident of support from the cabinet secretary, nor the prime minister.
Inside Downing Street, prime ministers pick a team they can work with. Political advisers may be people they know, and who tolerate the PM’s working habits and approach to the job. The danger comes when that applies to the officials too.
Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary in No 10, and the person who should have ensured propriety was observed behind that big black door, had performed the same role for Johnson as foreign secretary. His task would have been to create a Downing Street that worked for Johnson, that could accommodate his quirks and his style — but in doing so he appears to have absorbed Johnson’s lax approach to rules. It is quite easy to see how, compounded by a sense of lockdown exceptionalism, that approach led to “partygate”.
The conventions under which the system operates are being pushed to the limit. The prime minister may decide to change the line-up. But it will make no difference unless he signals from the top that he intends to preside over a new attitude to rules and standards — and that it applies to his cabinet as much as the civil service.