James Forsyth

Boris Johnson’s survival rests on reforming Whitehall

Boris Johnson's survival rests on reforming Whitehall
Daniel Leal-Olivas - WPA Pool/Getty Images
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More than 40 years after it was written there are still lines in Yes Minister that are painfully accurate about how Whitehall works. One of these is Jim Hacker’s comment that the British system of government has the engine of a lawnmower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce. Yet most new prime ministers regard civil service reform as a 'third-term issue'. It is time-consuming and is very much not a vote winner. 

But now Covid and the challenges it has thrown up has made it a priority. As I say in the Times today, it is now a matter of survival for this administration to sort out the machinery of government. Unless they do, they have no chance of clearing the backlogs that have built up during the past year and a bit.

For this reason, Whitehall reform is rising up the agenda. On Monday, the Commission for Smart Government will report. The commissioners, who include former permanent secretaries and entrepreneurs impatient with Whitehall as well as a slew of figures who carry particular weight with this government, have agreed its recommendations unanimously. Its most significant idea is to massively beef up No 10 to give it far more strategic heft. A newly created prime minister’s department would put thousands of civil servants at his or her disposal compared with the few dozen at present.

This new department would include a Treasury board, staffed by the prime minister’s officials but chaired by the chief secretary to the Treasury. Some old Treasury hands won’t like the idea of the department losing its exclusive control over the purse strings. But it would force Number 10 to make sure that resources are matched to priorities.

It is tempting to dismiss politicians whingeing about Whitehall. A bad workman blames their tools, after all. But the last five prime ministers have all ended up frustrated at how little happened when they pulled the levers of power. It is also impossible to look at the Covid crisis and conclude that nothing can be improved when it comes to the machinery of government. It is time for the British state to update its operating system.