Is this still the ‘seat of government’?


It is amazing: Williamson’s U-Turn in the A-Level Exam mess gets the full treatment in ‘Our MSM’ this morning but so far there’s no concerted outcry for him to resign. Far more interesting for us is that there are a few titbits strewn through various articles which throw a tiny light on Whitehall, in a shamefaced way. It’s as if criticising that august entity were somehow blasphemous and might be seen to give support to a certain Mr Cummings who, we remember, is of the devil and must be fought tooth and claw. 

Here are a few quotes which seem to show that “Whitehall” is perhaps not the monolithic entity and perhaps not totally populated by mini-Sedwills. Perhaps this impression is due to the fact that they’ve been working from home and thus didn’t receive the usual verbal instructions given in passing by their superiors. But rest assured – they do work! One even ‘works’ from Canada, from ‘the Canadian Pacific Time Zone’ even – eight hours behind BST:

“Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, has been working from her home across the Atlantic and is likely to have to isolate for 14 days when she returns to Britain next month.” (link, paywalled)

This was due to her mother having had an accident, so quite understandably she travelled to be with her. However, it’s unfathomable why she didn’t take leave of absence, as would have been proper. Her ‘entity’ (see here) deals with data protection and GDPS – not exactly unimportant in these times of CV-19 ‘tracing’ apps or as people made to leave name and address when entering a pub! These government policies surely needed her input, but then we read that:

“All staff at the ICO have been working from home since the start of the pandemic. Ms Denham is due to return to the UK on September 7 and will continue working from home. She quarantined for 14 days on her arrival in Canada in June, and is likely to have to do the same upon her return to the UK as Canada is not on the list of countries exempt from travel restrictions.” (link, paywalled)

Oh – that’s all right then: she’s complying with the quarantine regulations! No worries! Never mind the breach of e.g. GPDS by that tracing app: protecting us agains CV-19 has priority, ok yah? No intrepid reporter is researching how many – if any! – diligent civil serpents actually are populating Whitehall, nor how many quangocrats were absent. Why bother when blaming Johnson’s cabinet is far easier: they suddenly don’t need the input of their mandarins.

Back to Williamson’s U-Turn and this noteworthy quote. It’s as if one can discern a certain unrest amongst the lower Whitehall orders and seems to hint at divisions between Whitehall proper and quangos:

“One Whitehall source said: “At various points, assurances were given by Ofqual that the algorithm was in good shape, and that has now turned out not to be the case. After it came out, it became apparent this weekend that there were serious problems with it. The question is why those were not uncovered in advance.” (paywalled link)

Indeed – we’d love to know why! And we’d love to know why these ‘serious problems’ became apparent to those bright sparks only ‘this weekend’. One assumes Whitehall knows how those quangos are set up, how many highly-paid pen pushers are populating them. I mentioned Sir John Redwood’s diary entry yesterday where he lists those Ofqual departments and asks:

“Ofqual according to its website has 217 people in important posts on the Organogram to perform its role of regulating and supervising the Examining Boards with a view to maintaining the standards of qualifications. […] It is difficult to know what all these people do and how it contributes to maintaining the standards of qualifications.” (link)

Just so, Sir John! Given the same fiasco with PHE where there are more highly-paid chiefs than indians, perhaps questions ought to be asked in the House? His Diary entry today is about the public sector in general (here). You might like to take a look. 

With Sir John’s Diary entry in mind, another article in The Times is rather enlightening. It’s obviously based on Whitehall gossip and rumour. The aim seems to be to whitewash the mandarins while making the Johnson government look as inept as possible. Look at this:

“The top civil servant at the Department for Education faces being ousted because of concern at the department’s performance, The Times has been told. Jonathan Slater has been permanent secretary at the department since 2016 and has served under four education secretaries. Ministers are understood to be concerned after controversies over school reopening and exam grading, but a spokesman said: “The permanent secretary is not leaving his post and is focused on the job in hand, delivering the government’s agenda alongside ministers and the wider department.” (link, paywalled)

So why report this rumour even as it is refuted by a spokesman? Because The Times felt the need to list all those mandarins who have left, allegedly only due to Johnson’s ministers:

“If he left Mr Slater would be the fourth permanent secretary to go within seven months. Sir Philip Rutnam left the Home Office in January after accusing Priti Patel, the home secretary, of bullying and said that he would take the government to an employment tribunal. Sir Simon McDonald said in June that he was leaving the Foreign Office in the autumn and Sir Richard Heaton said last month that he was standing down as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice. Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, was ousted in June and is being given a £250,000 payout.” (link, paywalled)

Oh gawd, yes – “we” ought to have kept Sedwill to save that payout, of course! Did he perhaps leave ‘secret instructions’ after he resigned, to make life as difficult for Johnson’s Brexit government as possible? But lookit here, about Mr Slater, that education ‘permanent secretary’:

“Before joining the civil service in 2001, Mr Slater was deputy chief executive and director of education for Islington council in north London. He spent four years heading the No 10 Delivery Unit under Tony Blair. […] Last year Mr Slater took a role as a diversity champion helping Whitehall to become more friendly towards gay, lesbian and transgender people.” (link, paywalled)

What pedigree! How did he find the time to work as ‘diversity champion’! I wonder how many other mandarins have similar pedigrees – after all, they’d have had to join the civil service during Blair and Brown’s reign in order to’ve reached the top now.

Patrick O’Flynn in his (paywalled) article in today’s DT describes the fiascos Hancock, Williamson and of course Priti Patel have experienced in their departments – but fails to draw the proper conclusion. He believes these three have ‘failed’ because they’re too young and inexperienced. Only dear Rishi escapes his censure.

Mind you, I think Sunak appears to do well because the Treasury mandarins have already domesticated him thoroughly. It’s also quite intriguing that Mr Raab at the FO has apparently vanished without a trace. Are his mandarins, after having domesticated him, now grooming him to take over from Johnson? Stranger things have happened … Mr ‘O’Flynn’s recipe for ‘success’, at first glance, is quite sensible:

“Nonetheless, the Cabinet is in dire need of bolstering with the addition of some old pros. To put it in Thatcher-era terms, it needs a Willie Whitelaw – a senior figure charged with spotting banana skins before they are stepped upon. A bit more ring-craft among Secretaries of State in general would not go amiss either.” (paywalled link)

However, by naming Damian Green and Jeremy Hunt as such ‘senior figures’ he’s managing to ridicule his proposal all by himself. I wonder if it would really be beyond the ability of whoever replaces Johnson (rumour has it that there will be a cabinet reshuffle in January – so perhaps that includes a reshuffle in who gets to sit in No 10) to ask MPs such as Sir John Redwood or Owen Paterson to take on that Willie Whitelaw role Mr O’Flynn proposes. 

Labour, with the exception of their leader, has so far refrained from making hay of this latest government fiasco. Yes, Starmer had a little video (here) criticising the government: full of hot air but no actual policy. I’m sure Mr O’Flynn knows who all is in Starmer’s shadow cabinet: heaving with experienced senior figures – not! But then again, why would they need to worry about Whitehall mandarins possessing pedigrees like that of the education mandarin!

I leave you with the thought that nowadays, given the post-covid madness, we mustn’t criticise the brave mandarins who’re only do their job under the extremely difficult conditions of CV-19. Work from home must be ever so taxing, especially their work of scuppering Johnson’s Brexit government.

I wonder when our intrepid reporters in ‘Our MSM’ take a look at the actual workers who’ve kept this country running, from supermarket shelf-stackers to delivery drivers to waste disposal workers, CV-19 or not. Perhaps it’s the case that they, that we peasants, are far more resilient than the precious civil serpents who’ve been wrapped in cotton wool thanks to our ever more exorbitant taxes.

Perhaps a root-and-branch reform of the public service, from mandarins to quango-chiefs, ought to start with a drastic reduction in the salaries of those ‘on top’.




Photo by RachelH_

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