Regular readers of these pages might remember that we’ve often pointed out how the Mandarins in Whitehall were doing their utmost to sabotage Brexit (e.g. here), well before the Nightmare at Chequers, before we became aware of how the top Mandarins had collaborated with the EU, with Barnier and his deputy, Ms Weyand, to give us Ms May’s fake “BRINO”. We also recall the various Project Fear scenarios, during the EU Referendum Campaign and afterwards. These were all based on figures and numbers coming from the Treasury.
Now, thanks to the unrelenting campaign in RemainCentral to somehow thwart Johnson’s attempts to get the thing done, the actual warfare fought by Mandarins against their ministers has come out into the open. The original “Get Cummings” campaign has quietened down somewhat because the MSM have a new target: the Home Secretary Priti Patel.
The Home Office is responsible, amongst other things, for the Border Force and thus for Immigration policies. A proposal for a points-system based policy was introduced – one of the things Johnson had campaigned on. Here is the actual government proposal, published on the 19th of February. Odd, isn’t it, that the furious reports about Ms Patel having bulled a civil servant so that he/she/it fainted became headline ‘news’ in RemainCental on the 16th of February (link, paywalled).
In that first report and in the ensuing back-and-forth one thing became, in Westminster-Bubble-Speak, “crystal clear”: Whitehall Mandarins did undermine their Ministers, and did damage to Brexit. We recall the Sirs Sedwill and Oily Robbins. The Home Office Sir-of-Damage is Sir Philip Rutnam.
Before we look at the gory details, I urge you to read Sir John Redwood’s entry in his Diary this morning. There is also a rather good analysis by Paul Goodman in ConHome, showing that the Home Office Mandarins have form, thwarting numerous Home Secretaries over the years – not just Tory ones.
There is also a report in RemainCentral of all places where their Business correspondent takes a look back at the career of Sir Philip Rutman. It certainly raises the question of how come such civil servant got to where he is, even becoming a Sir. He formerly was at the Transport Dept. After listing the many disasters under Rutman’s ‘command’, Mr Alistair Osborne writes:
“Sir Philip was also in charge of the transport wing when HS2 was priced in 2015 at £56 billion. The price today? A likely £106 billion. After five years at transport, he joined the Home Office in 2017. There he is overseeing the new communications network for the emergency services: the one Theresa May procured to replace the Airwave system. Last year, an NAO report found the project was running at least three years late and £3.1 billion over budget.” (link, paywalled)
That is a formidable background! While it is normal that there are factions in big departments, these are not supposed to come out into the open, the debates are not supposed to become material in the MSM, thanks to leaks by interested ‘sources’. As Sir Philip Rutnam has his supporters who have been leaking to the MSM, so has Ms Patel. The reports during the last week in the MSM are too numerous to list, the ‘grievances’ are however indicative of the ‘no-can-do’ attitude in the Home Office, for example that:
“Priti Patel fell out with Home Office officials after she accused them of dragging their feet over tougher action against eco-warrriors, […] The Home Secretary wanted them to look into ways to change police powers to stop protesters bringing cities to a standstill, a Government source said. But she felt they were raising objections to reforms which could have helped the police tackle organisations such as Extinction Rebellion.” (link)
As the briefing war was waged in the MSM during the last week, with ‘allies’ of Ms Patel denying that she was a bully (link) while a few days later we’re told that yes, she is one because one of her officers resigned, the following quote is indicative of the Whitehall mindset – not in a good way though:
“Priti Patel has been hit with new ‘bullying’ claims as it emerges an immigration boss quit over ‘major run-ins’ with the Home Secretary. It comes as Ms Patel had already been accused of belittling Home Office civil servants. According to [Trade] Union sources, the director general of UK Visas and Immigration and HM Passport Office Mark Thomson was prompted to resign from his role following ‘uncomfortable’ demands by the Home Secretary. Mick Jones of the Public and Commercial Services Union told the Guardian: ‘He’s indicated to our reps that it was mainly because they had had major run-ins. ‘It was clear that [Patel] had come in and was trying to do things that they [Home Office officials] just weren’t comfortable with and [Thomson] sort of said ‘I’m off then’.’ (link)
You really could not make it up – these civil serpents look like a bunch of melting snowflakes: they ‘had major run-ins’ because Ms Patel wasn’t doing as she was told by her betters, those top Mandarins, and then they run to wail in the Guardian …!
The latest negative briefings however deserve an ‘honorary mention’. Early yesterday morning, we read in RemainCentral under the headline: “MI5 chiefs ‘do not trust’ Priti Patel with their secrets”(link, paywalled). RemainCentral did mention that sources in MI5 rejected that claim – and they got another article out of this early today, headlined that Ms Patel was ‘livid’ about those leaks (link, paywalled, also here), insinuating that she’s a temperamental female who might of course also be capable of bullying. However, she was’t livid, it was MI5:
“Security sources have issued a highly unusual denial that MI5 was holding back intelligence from the Home Secretary. MI5 officers were said to be “furious” at the claims, published in The Sunday Times, and within hours security sources took the highly unusual step of issuing a denial unprecedented in its strength. “Reports suggesting that the Home Secretary and MI5 do not have a strong relationship are simply untrue,” said a security source.” (paywalled link)
As this Home Office Mandarin warfare unfolded, several other blunders (I am being kind) in other departments were also reported over the weekend. There’s a piece about ‘officials’ at Defra failing to report troubles with an IT system because they allegedly wanted to hinder Brexit operations, being contemptuous of Johnson (link, also here).
Then there’s one about the way Whitehall undermined the UK Space Programme to replace Galileo which the EU has stopped us from using post-Brexit. This is quite extraordinary:
“The Prime Minister came to a loggerhead with Whitehall’s head of the Civil Service over a top-secret £5billion spy satellite project. In a meeting with Mr Johnson and his closest aide Dominic Cummings, Sir Mark Sedwell branded the project “unrealistic and unaffordable” and revealed his officials were working on a cheaper alternative. A “visibly angry” Mr Johnson then put his head in his hands and berated the head of the chief mandarin. He was met with negative comments about the space programme being months behind schedule. The Prime Minister snapped: “Why am I only hearing about this now?” Sir Mark replied he was “going to tell you about it after this meeting”.” (link)
An excuse, you will agree, generally used by school kids who’ve not done their homework. It is a powerful illustration of how Whitehall, from the top down, has been thwarting Brexit and is continuing to do so.
In a report in the DT we read over the weekend that Johnson wants to replace certain top Mandarins according to ‘Tory sources’. We’re given names, and what a surprise they are:
“Senior Tories said No 10 sees Sir Tom Scholar, the Treasury permanent secretary, who previously led David Cameron’s attempted renegotiations with the EU, as “offside” on Brexit and his approach to the economy. […] The disclosure comes after a major row between Priti Patel and Sir Philip Rutnam, the Home Office permanent secretary, boiled over last week with the disclosure that the Home Secretary had attempted to remove her top official after a series of clashes. Sir Philip was accused of “obstructing” and “undermining” successive home secretaries. Tory sources said Sir Tom, 51, and Sir Philip, 54, were among three permanent secretaries Downing Street wanted to replace, along with Sir Simon McDonald, 58, the most senior civil servant at the Foreign Office, who worked alongside Mr Johnson when he was foreign secretary.“ (paywalled link).
I recall several disrespectful briefings about Johnson being a ‘disaster’ at the Foreign Office, during and after his tenure. With all due respect I suggest that a certain Sir Mark Sedwill ought to head this ‘sh*tlist’ – that’s what those Tory sources called it and that’s how the DT reported it.
I think it’s a very good thing that these secretive, powerful Mandarins and their nefarious schemes are now in the limelight. I also hope that other powerful Remain Mandarins in other departments will be outed for sabotaging Brexit. The arrival of David Frost on the Brexit scene shows that not all of Whitehall is in thrall to Remain. Many civil servants however may well have been bullied by Top Mandarins to toe the Remain line.
While M Barnier and the EU are sorting themselves out to present us with their ‘Mandate’, it’s good that this Mandarin war against Brexit is out in the open. Their attempts at Brexit sabotage, at undermining Johnson’s government, will hopefully backfire, perhaps resulting in a better and firmer attitude, even in Whitehall, to ‘get Brexit done’.