Who are ‘the blob’?

Liz Truss calls them the ‘deep state’, Dominic Cummings ‘the blob’ and for Sue Gray they are simply former colleagues. But most of the public – and indeed, most of the political class – know very little about them at all. Permanent secretaries and directors general, the two most senior rungs of the civil service, wield substantial power and influence. This is not shadowy or improper, but their job. When ministers make a decision, they usually do so on the basis of advice shaped by their department’s top officials. When civil servants have concerns about the propriety of a task, it is senior officials who guide them. And permanent secretaries

In defence of ‘Stop Brexit Man’ Steve Bray

It is a great and ancient right of all freeborn Englishmen, stretching back far beyond the reaches of our recorded history. From Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution, it has been woven into each of the defining constitutional moments of the British story, a principle bled and died for on the battlefields of Europe. It is, of course, the right to make a tit of yourself. Whitehall’s Stop Brexit Man has been the most vociferous pursuer of that right in recent years. Steve Bray, with his Brussels blue top hat and shouty megaphone demeanour, loves to make a tit of himself. He marches around Westminster barking inanities at any unsuspecting

What shape is the Treasury in now?

Don’t bring a bottle. Your chances of finding a party in full swing down those chilly corridors are close to zero. At most, you might hear the sound of a distant flute playing a courante by Lully. As Sir Howard Davies puts it in this insider’s view, which manages to be both authoritative and quite cheeky: The Treasury does not cultivate a warm and cuddly working environment. You may well not know if your immediate boss has a spouse or partner, and would certainly never meet them if they exist. Social events are at a premium. Yet this notoriously ascetic culture is not in the least hierarchical. Junior principals are

Snafu at Slough House: Bad Actors, by Mick Herron, reviewed

Reviewers who make fancy claims for genre novels tend to sound like needy show-offs or hard-of-thinking dolts. So be it: here’s mine. Anyone who tries to understand modern Britain through its fiction but overlooks Mick Herron’s satirical thrillers merits a punishment posting to the critics’ version of Slough House. That noxious midden of a building opposite the Barbican, its leprous chambers groaning like ‘the internal organs of some giant, diseased beast’, is a sort of landfill site for failed spies. Herron first opened its flaking doors in 2010 with his novel Slow Horses. Seven books later, his squad of borderline sociopath rejects from polite espionage has risen to the dignity

Whitehall swells its army of consultants (again)

The government seems keen to conduct something of a war on Whitehall. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minster for government efficiency, has even taken to leaving calling cards in empty offices in order to encourage civil servants to return to their workplaces. But hybrid working isn’t the only problem facing the civil service: a more costly issue, perhaps, is the spiralling bill to taxpayers of Sir Humphrey’s army of outside advisers brought in to aid Whitehall’s finest.  For total government expenditure on external consultants increased by 70 per cent in the last five financial years, rising from £717 million in 2016/17 to £1.2 billion in 2020/21. This is despite a National Audit Office report

The missing mandarins: why won’t civil servants go back to work?

‘Mother nature,’ says Boris Johnson, ‘does not like working from home.’ The Prime Minister wants workers to return to offices so they can have the ‘stimulus of exchange and competition’. His ministers are just as evangelical. Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, says he favours ‘being able to interact directly’ with colleagues and Rishi Sunak has spoken about how young people need the office space to learn. The nation’s employers should, they say, get their staff back to their desks. Yet nine months since the end of lockdown and tumbleweed is still blowing through the corridors of power. When Jacob Rees-Mogg conducted an audit to see how many Whitehall desks were

Is this the end of borrow and spend?

Since the spring statement last week, Rishi Sunak has been dealing with complaints from all sides: the right have been arguing he should have been bolder with tax cuts, the left insists more support is needed to help people with the rising costs.  With the Office for Budget Responsibility projecting the biggest fall in living standards since records began, rumours of U-turns and further announcements started bubbling over the weekend. The media, the opposition, and even some Tory MPs have been asking Treasury representatives over and over again: is that all? In a keynote address hosted by the Institute of Economic Affairs this morning, chief secretary to the Treasury Simon

Can Mogg tackle the spiralling spad bill?

Jacob Rees-Mogg has been out and about making the most of his new role. Appointed minister for government efficiency in last month’s reshuffle, the Somerset MP was quick to announce his plans for the brief: a cut of least 65,000 civil servants to shrink Whitehall to the size it was pre-pandemic. The former leader of the Commons also plans to personally review every new vacant post to see if it should be filled. News of a mandarin crackdown will be welcomed by many in Rees-Mogg’s party, hungry for a diet of red meat after months of Tory drift. But will special advisers be included in the planned bonfire of the

Revealed: Whitehall’s £33 million WFH spend

Throughout much of 2021, ministers have been keen to get civil servants back into Whitehall. Oliver Dowden called for mandarins to ‘get off their Pelotons and back to their desks’; his fellow Tory Jake Berry has accused them of ‘woke-ing from home.’ But the civil servants themselves have proved somewhat reluctant to do so, with Dave Penman, the leader of the FDA trade union, suggesting ministers instead should be celebrating the civil service… making the most of new technology whilst making savings for the taxpayer.’ In spite of the government’s efforts to pressure businesses to order staff to return to the office, it appears that such efforts have also fallen short in the state

Boris Johnson’s survival rests on reforming Whitehall

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.  Whitehall reform is rising up the agenda 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

The conflict that will define Boris Johnson’s first term in office

The fundamental issue revealed by the resignation of the Home Office’s Permanent Secretary Sir Philip Rutnam is the yawning gap between what Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings want post-Brexit UK to be on January 1, 2021, and what senior civil servants think is deliverable. The PM and his chief aide want to have a fully functioning new immigration system by then, whereas officials fear there’s not enough time. Johnson and Cummings argue the police should be able to keep us safe if we are no longer part of European Arrest Warrant system. Officials can’t concur. Downing Street thinks we can ward off pandemics if we withdraw from the EU’s Early

HS2 is becoming increasingly difficult to justify

More criticism of the infamous HS2 high-speed rail project emerged today, as the National Audit Office published their findings of serious mismanagement and rocketing costs, implicating both HS2 limited and the Department for Transport. From the NAO watchdog: ‘The Department, HS2 Ltd and government more widely underestimated the task, leading to optimistic estimates being used to set budgets and delivery dates. In not fully and openly recognising the programme’s risks from the outset, the Department and HS2 Ltd have not adequately managed the risks to value for money. If these risks had been recognised and managed earlier, then the significant activity in a pressured environment over the past year trying