Radical plans for the “politicisation” of Whitehall are being considered by the government’s adviser on the civil service.
Conservative peer and former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is discussing moves to give ministers greater powers to appoint their own civil servants – including some with overt political affiliations.
Writing in today’s Observer, Maude says that in order for ministers to get the best advice possible, we need “to be more robust and less mealy-mouthed about ‘politicisation’”.
The Observer says that Maude’s ideas, which include the external auditing of advice given by civil servants, will cause alarm across Whitehall following the resignation of Dominic Raab after for bullying officials he believed had underperformed.
The paper adds that the Raab case has highlighted tensions between the need for ministers to drive policies forward to deliver on their political objectives and the independence of the civil servants who serve them.
READ MORE: Rees-Mogg leaves host speechless as he calls UK ambassador ‘wetwipe’
Raab’s departure angered many Tory MPs, who believe the civil service is dominated by liberal remainers.
Civil servants, meanwhile, fear a backlash by their Tory critics, who include Maude.
Ahead of a report being drawn up for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Maude indicates that only radical change will prevent more crises breaking out between ministers and civil servants.
He is said to be keenly looking at the examples of countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
“It is perfectly possible to preserve impartiality and, indeed, improve continuity while allowing ministers more say in appointments,” he writes.
“I will address this in the accountability and governance review I am undertaking for the government. Without material adjustment, there will be more cases like Raab’s when frustrations boil over.
“We need a much more robust culture, with less groupthink, more rugged disagreement, and the confidence both to offer challenge and to accept it.
“That includes accepting candid feedback. Today, there is no external accountability for the quality of advice, other than to ministers. There could be value in regular external audits, conducted by qualified outsiders, with published results.
“This would reward officials who get it right, and provide a stimulus to the rest. We also need to be more robust and less mealy-mouthed about ‘politicisation’. Again, other systems deal with this better.
“In France, permanent civil servants often have overt political affiliations and it causes few problems.
The Observer says that many in Whitehall fear the Conservatives will turn their fire on the civil service and blame it for the government’s shortcomings and the failings of Brexit.
Simon McDonald, who was permanent secretary of the Foreign Office for five years, said there was no civil service “agenda” and the “minister’s behaviour” was the issue following the Raab resignation – not the actions of civil servants.
Lord McDonald, who gave evidence to Adam Tolley KC’s investigation, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I disagree strongly with Mr Raab.
“There is no civil service activism, there is no civil service passive aggression, there is no separate civil service agenda. The issue is a minister’s behaviour.”