Are British bureaucrats rebelling against the Johnson administration?

Cabinet members are just not listening to the civil servants anymore

In this file picture taken on November 10, 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Martin Reynolds, the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary, arrive back at Downing Street in London. AFP

In fiction worldwide, government workers, public servants and office workers are often treated with humour or contempt.

For Anton Chekhov, clerks were underpaid little people obsessed with apparently trifling concerns, like losing a warm coat in winter. In Herman Melville’s stories, one functionary is always in the office early in the morning and last thing at night, until you realise he actually sleeps there. He has no other life. In Britain, higher level civil servants are sometimes called "mandarins", arrogant comedy figures satirised in an old TV series called Yes, Minister. Civil servants, special advisers and others always appear to agree with their bosses – government ministers – but the joke is that behind the scenes they are really manipulative and subversive, conspiring to keep their elected bosses at their mercy.

Right now in the UK, the difficult relationship civil servants are having with government ministers is almost always in the news, but rarely as a comedy.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is a senior minister with the glorious title “Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency”. He is better known as an eccentric Old Etonian photographed fully stretched out across the UK House of Commons benches, apparently asleep during a parliamentary debate. Now Mr Rees-Mogg has been insisting that civil servants working from home as a result of coronavirus should return to the office. He put passive-aggressive notes on empty office desks saying: “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg, second left, with Alister Jack, Secretary of State for Scotland, during Prime Minister's Questions at the House of Commons, in London on November 3, 2021. UK Parliament

There was widespread disbelief that a government minister had so little to do that he would go around desks in the British bureaucracy in what one trade union leader called “the most crass and condescending act I’ve seen from a minister”. A spokesman for Mr Rees-Mogg confirmed the messages were real.

The apparent conflict between British government bureaucrats and their ministerial bosses goes far further. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reported to be preparing to ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol. It is part of the Brexit agreement to prevent violence recurring in Northern Ireland. Having negotiated the deal, Mr Johnson now appears to be ready to renege on what is an international agreement, thereby seriously damaging Britain’s credibility abroad.

The Irish government, other EU members states, the Biden administration in Washington and also many of British government advisers are unhappy that an agreement signed so recently might be torn up. A few days ago, a former top government adviser told me that British civil servants and advisers nowadays feel they can “no longer speak truth to power” on this or other matters because Mr Johnson and his ministers do not listen to advice, however well grounded in facts and experience it may be.

Then there is the British Home Office under Home Secretary Priti Patel. She has the difficult job of deciding what to do about migrants and asylum seekers, who risk their lives crossing the English Channel in small boats. Ms Patel could, of course, set up a legal way of entry to the UK through a government immigration unit in Calais, on the French coast. But she will not do this because the Conservative party depends upon support from some voters who – there is no nice way of putting this – loathe immigrants and asylum seekers.

Ms Patel previously suggested an idea that Border Force or navy personnel could somehow “push back” dinghies and other small boats at sea. This would undoubtedly lead to loss of life, and perhaps criminal charges for manslaughter. It was challenged by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) trade union, representing workers who might be asked to perform or organise such a dangerous task.

Ms Patel is also facing what has been described as a “mutiny” from staff who have been told to plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. Unions representing government workers suggest – as one union leader, Dave Penman of the FDA, put it – that staff may be forced to “implement [this plan] or leave” their jobs in the Home Office. Another union leader, Mark Serwotka of the PCS union, calls the policy “utterly inhumane”. Following opposition from her own senior advisers, Ms Patel even had to issue what is known as a ministerial direction to implement the policy against their considered advice.

All this leads, inevitably, to the very top of British politics, and Mr Johnson’s own staff. Some have been forced to resign as a result of the chaos in the rudderless Downing Street operation. Some are now facing fines as a result of parties during the coronavirus lockdown, parties attended by the Prime Minister himself in breach of his own rules and regulations.

The British bureaucracy, once widely envied, is now in a terrible state. One Conservative minister used to refer to that bureaucracy as "the Blob", a group of men and women he thought routinely prevented reforms. Perhaps sometimes that is true. But public servants are also a repository of skills, experience and knowledge. They know the failings of politicians very well. It is hardly surprising that the Johnson administration has plenty of leaks to journalists from staff who are quietly rebelling against their own bosses.

Published: April 26, 2022, 7:00 AM
Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National