The Darroch affair reveals deeper threats to the UK civil service

Speaking truth to power is an art which only a favoured few get the chance to practice.

One consummate practitioner was Kim Darroch, who has resigned as the UK’s ambassador to the US after the shocking leak of his private reflections on Donald Trump. The president did not want to hear those particular truths — which were, I imagine, among the least useful of Sir Kim’s reflections.

No one should let their staff be bullied by a foreign power. The prime minister was right to support Sir Kim. But his position was untenable — a fact Boris Johnson was acknowledging when he refused to promise to keep him in post.

Even if Mr Johnson were, after taking over from Theresa May, to fill the vacancy with a political ally, such a move would not be unprecedented: James Callaghan appointed the journalist Peter Jay to Washington in 1977. But it would be abhorrent if Sir Kim’s replacement could be in any way associated with the leak. At stake is the morale of a civil service already under severe strain, just when we need the brightest and the best to see us through Brexit.

The brain drain from Whitehall was noticeable long before the referendum. Some brilliant people in their thirties, with peers climbing the rungs of lucrative professions, could not see a future for themselves in the civil service.

Poor talent management, stalled salaries and a default tendency to value risk-averse individuals over innovators are partly to blame. But Brexit has made things worse, imposing relentless uncertainty and upping political hostilities. Officials I know who voted to Leave feel as uncomfortable about the establishment blocking Brexit as their Remain-voting colleagues feel when Nigel Farage dubs them the “enemy within”. Others have worked tirelessly on no-deal contingency planning, only to hear their advice to ministers that parts of the travel industry could go bust, or that medicines might be delayed, is “defeatist”.

The despondency has probably been accentuated by the widening gulf between the two main political parties. Brexit, and the advent of a hard-left Labour leader, have made the landscape less easy to read. In the run-up to an election, the briefing packs civil servants have to prepare for an incoming government led by Jeremy Corbyn or a Johnson government will look very different. As one official said to me: “We’d better not hand out the wrong one.”

You could say this goes with the territory. It is, after all, the job of officials to adapt to different agendas, to give advice without fear or favour, and then to implement ministers’ decisions. And, in truth, the civil service has many deficiencies.

I’ve had run-ins over many years, in different guises, with its tendency to advocate consultation rather than take action, or to gloss over reality. Frequent role changes, which degrade expertise, don’t help. This turnover, according to the Institute for Government, is increasing.

Every new administration comes to office suspicious of Sir Humphrey. At last month’s memorial service for the late, great cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, Tony Blair joked that he had never been sure who had been working for who. But that was a tribute, not a criticism. In his long career, Heywood was often the cleverest person in the room. He could have risen to the top of almost any profession but spent his days helping Britain through perils such as the financial crisis. We need more civil servants like him, not fewer — and more ministers who can match that level of intellect.

There is always an asymmetry. Ministers and political advisers have a sense of urgency, knowing their days are numbered; officials know they will outlast any administration. That urgency, and the desire to grab headlines, can lead to poor decisions. The best civil servants anticipate and explain the challenges, and help find a better path to the same outcome. Tension is normal and necessary. Problems arise if officials stop telling aggressive ministers inconvenient truths or if civil servants try to scupper plans by the back door.

I’ve often discussed with Americans whether we should adopt the US system, in which about a quarter of appointments are political. This gives every administration a cadre of experts who share its worldview.

Most say they envy our system. In the US, posts can be left vacant for one year in four, as government lurches through a massive recruitment and endorsement process. Our system, they say, seems more stable, and offers objective advice.

What about ambassadorial postings? An American businessman posted to Beijing as ambassador may have a hotline to the president that officials lack, and will focus on the interests of home, not “go native”, as career diplomats sometimes do. There are downsides, however. The business person who understands “home” may be less useful in reporting back the nuances of “abroad”. Nations less powerful than the US need to understand both. That is what diplomats do.

Outsiders can bring expertise and energy, at a time of national crisis: Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, has suggested giving one or two ambassadorial postings to British business executives. But there is a danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Whitehall loses its best people, those who stay may be less able to moderate the excesses of Corbynism or the extreme Brexiters. You can’t wish for the civil service to play only one of those roles: it must remain independent and impartial.

The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a senior fellow at Harvard University


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