How officials helped overthrow Boris Johnson – POLITICO

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LONDON — Boris Johnson just wants to hide.

As his supporters work to secure his legacy, the British Prime Minister would rather be anywhere but linger at No 10 now that he has announced he is stepping down, according to a person who has spent time with him this week.

Johnson’s humiliating downfall was a victory for his conservative critics who were tired of making excuses for his failures. But it was also a moment of recuperation for another calmer part of the British establishment: the civil service.

For the past six years, pro-Brexit campaigners led by Johnson have accused the UK’s 475,000 permanent government officials – known collectively as Whitehall and bound to be politically impartial – of thwarting their efforts to implement the result of the 2016 referendum.

Since Johnson entered Downing Street in July 2019, officials have faced a barrage of attacks from his aides and allies, including top government ministers, who have dubbed them “the Blob”.

But on July 5, a Whitehall great hit back.

Simon McDonald, the former top Foreign Office mandarin, delivered what proved to be a decisive blow that helped bring down the Prime Minister. He went public with a claim that Johnson’s Downing Street was lying to cover up what the Prime Minister knew about sexual assault allegations against Chris Pincher, a minister he had appointed.

” Nope. 10 keep changing their story and still not telling the truth”, McDonald wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. Johnson knew all about Pincher’s case and gave him a job anyway, he said.

It was an explosive claim that dominated the day’s business at Westminster. When Johnson chaired a cabinet meeting that morning, the grim-faced ministers could barely look him in the eye. By the end of the day, two cabinet ministers had resigned and the floodgates were open. A reluctant Johnson was forced to resign 48 hours later.

According to an official, some officials were wearing wide smiles around the office when the prime minister finally announced he was leaving. Others were sad to see highly respected ministers like Rishi Sunak leaving their departments.

One thing they agree on is that McDonald’s intervention was seismic.

“It is rare – perhaps unprecedented – for a former high-profile mandarin to take to the airwaves to insert themselves into a live political argument,” said Jill Rutter, in a blog post for the Institute. for Government.

Boris Johnson | WPA Pool Photo by via Daniel Leal Getty Images

A Whitehall insider described widespread astonishment at McDonald’s comments. “It was a very important moment of the week,” the person said. “I think it certainly had a big impact. »

For some there was a sense of schadenfreude. “Perhaps it was appropriate, in the end, that it was a former permanent secretary, speaking truth to power, who delivered the killing blow,” said Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, representing senior civil servants.

McDonald acknowledged his decision to speak out was “unusual”, but said he felt he had a duty to the victims to come forward with the truth.

War on Whitehall

The breakdown in relations between Tories and civil servants carries major risks for Britain.

He threatened to undermine relations with other countries, whose diplomats are unsure how much to trust their British counterparts. At the national level, the danger is that ministerial decisions are not implemented and the elected government does not respect the voters, while the public loses confidence in the system.

“We are all happy that he is gone,” said a senior official. “It is mainly because this period has been so damaging to the standards of public life. The institutions we have loved and defended for years have all but been trashed.

The Johnson administration’s war on the civil service has its roots in the Brexit battles that tore British politics apart after the 2016 referendum.

The Vote Leave campaign was led by Johnson and supported by several of his ministers. Its mastermind was Dominic Cummings, the radical reform adviser who entered No 10 with Johnson, determined to tear Whitehall apart.

On the remaining side in 2016, there was all the power of the Treasury. Its dire warnings of recession, rising unemployment and impact on family incomes have been dubbed ‘Project Fear’ and dismissed by Brexiteers as fiction.

The same Brexiteers cried foul when Theresa May’s chief negotiator Oliver Robbins – a civil servant – brought back a deal with Brussels that kept the UK tied too tightly to EU rules for their liking. Johnson left the Cabinet and set off a chain of events that ultimately led to May’s resignation – and his ascension to prime minister in 2019.

Despite a landslide election victory and a hard Brexit, Johnson’s government has not let up on its assault on civil servants.

In fact, Cummings was particularly radical, warning that “heavy rain” was about to fall on Whitehall. He had long wanted to downsize departments and abolish the permanent civil service, and he set about hiring “weirds” and “misfits” to shake up the administration.

But the impact of hostility has become toxic. The Prime Minister complained privately that the civil service was taking too long to realize its plans and that he could not get anything through. Senior officials, meanwhile, said it was impossible to work for Johnson’s team. Some high-ranking people felt they had no choice but to quit, and did.

“It’s an extremely difficult government to work for,” said one, still in office. Other experienced senior officials agree. Johnson’s two independent ethics advisers have resigned.

Johnson finally recognized that things had to change. In September 2020, he appointed Prince William’s top aide, Simon Case, then 41, as Cabinet Secretary – the government’s most senior civil servant.

Case’s speech for the job was based on a plan to end the war on Whitehall, according to reports. Johnson agreed, and the couple set about overhauling Downing Street and mending relations with the civil service.

For a while, things got better. But this year, as Johnson’s administration was brutalized for hosting lockdown-breaking parties, the attacks began again.

Arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is still in Cabinet, has threatened to demote or even fire civil servants who were still working from home after lockdown rules were lifted.

How officials helped overthrow Boris Johnson – POLITICO
Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

On July 3, Attorney General Suella Braverman, another Brexit hardliner who is now running for party leadership, complained of “battles” with officials who have a “bias to stay”. Some are still “unable to conceive of the possibility of living outside the EU”, she told the Sunday Telegraph.

The public service is not above reproach. Case, the cabinet secretary, has been singled out for not doing enough to rein in the excesses of Johnson’s team. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman has been called for dismissal for lying to the press during official government briefings. Privately, some officials admit the slowness of Johnson’s policies. Others say it’s hard to tell the truth to the press when the prime minister is lying.

For a former political adviser, the Whitehall wars are a clash between two cultures. Civil servants can be infuriating, the person said, but by nature their job is to be small-c “conservative” and provide continuity. The Brexiteer government, on the other hand, came to power promising “a revolution”, the person said.

the blob

The Cummings-led assault on the administration began when he was an adviser to Michael Gove, who became education secretary in 2010. The couple called the school bureaucracy, which included civil servants and unions of teachers, of “the Blob”, after a crisis of the 1950s. sci-fi horror film in which an extraterrestrial amoeba devours everything in its path.

Johnson expelled Cummings in November 2020 and fired Gove on Wednesday night. Now he has also resigned and the Blob is back in charge, at least for now.

As the walls closed around the prime minister this week, his advisers considered calling a snap election to keep him in office. They were told by senior civil servants that it would not be allowed.

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Sir Simon McDonald and Boris Johnson in 2016 | WPA Pool Photo by Andrew Matthews via Getty Images

Big Tories – including former Prime Minister John Major – have worried about what Johnson would do if he was allowed to remain in Downing Street for months after handing in his advice, fearing a repeat of the latter’s position. former US President Donald Trump. But Case, the cabinet secretary, has now made it clear that no radical new policies will be allowed in Johnson’s final days.

“During the leadership contest period, the work of government continues,” Case wrote in a letter to all public servants, seen by POLITICO. “Cabinet agreed yesterday that, rather than initiating new policy or resisting previously agreed positions, the government should focus on delivering the agenda it has already collectively agreed to. »

As for the Conservative leadership, the civil service is supposed to help candidates in the same way. Once the field of contenders is narrowed to a final pair that will compete for party member votes, officials are likely to provide evidence-based policy advice, as they do to opposition parties ahead of the general election.

Yet even with Johnson gone, Whitehall workers are unlikely to relax for long. The government plans to cut 91,000 civil service jobs. It is a policy that few conservatives will campaign to reverse.

And there are fears that McDonald’s intervention could come back to bite the public service and have damaged its brand. “Many senior officials and former officials found Simon’s intervention extraordinary,” an insider said. “This could have very damaging ramifications for the future. »

Whoever the next PM will have noticed how Johnson’s war on Whitehall ended – and will want to avoid a similar fate.

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