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Here comes the hard rain

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Chief civil servant out the door as Johnson and Cummings ramp up Whitehall reform efforts

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Monday June 29 2020

Front Bench


Good morning. Britain's chief civil servant is quitting. It marks the removal of another major obstacle to the Johnson-Cummings plan to overhaul the Civil Service.

Cabinet Secretary resigns as Johnson and Cummings press ahead with Whitehall reform

By Daniel Capurro,
Front Bench Editor

The pandemic may be far from over, but Downing Street is very much thinking of what happens after. Today and tomorrow, Boris Johnson will make major announcements on plans for the post-Covid rebuilding of the economy (more on that below).

Perhaps as significantly, yesterday he took a major step in plans to reform Whitehall. Last night it was confirmed that Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, would be leaving the role in September. The announcement had been planned for later in the year, but was rushed out after The Telegraph and the Financial Times reported on the plans.

While Sir Mark officially resigned, it seems fairly clear that he was forced out. The head of the Civil Service, who also served as National Security Adviser, had been expected to be cleared out as soon as Johnson came into office, but, initially at least, was said to enjoy a good relationship with the new PM and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.

In recent months, however, it has soured considerably and Sir Mark has been subject to considerable briefings against him to the media, especially over the coronavirus crisis.

– Here comes the hard rain –

The departure of Sir Mark, who will become the shortest-serving Cabinet Secretary, means that three of the top four civil servants in Whitehall have all been cleared out under Johnson, with only the permanent secretary at the Treasury remaining.

While Sir Mark was a key ally and effectively a creation of Theresa May’s, this is, for obvious reasons, being seen as part of Cummings’ plans to upend Whitehall, following his briefing to advisers this month that a “hard rain” was coming for the Civil Service.

On Saturday, Michael Gove gave some indication of the plans. He talked of breaking up departments and moving civil servants to the Midlands and the North, getting more scientists involved and making Whitehall and the Government “closer to the 52 per cent who voted to leave”.

There are, though, structural as well as political reasons behind the reform. While Downing Street has been heavily criticised for centralising power from Whitehall, as Fraser Nelson explained last week, Cummings insists that the overall objective is to distribute it beyond London.

One of his key objectives, as it is for so many who enter Downing Street, is to redress the balance of power between No10 and the Whitehall departments. The UK is unusual in that the PM has plenty of official power but very few resources to enforce it. Pulling a lever only for nothing to happen is a familiar feeling among former prime ministers.

For that reason, one of Cummings’ key targets is to reform the Cabinet Office, originally created to allow more central oversight and direction of the Civil Service, which he sees as bloated and inefficient. He wants it to become nimbler and more efficient.

– What makes this time different? –

The question, as it always is with Civil Service reform, is whether this Government can see them through to fruition. Already there are indications of the compromises that Johnson will have to make and he is not facing a pliant Whitehall.

Sir Mark will be replaced as National Security Adviser by David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit negotiator – Frost will be the first political appointment to the role since it was created, despite existing rules and without competition.

But that victory, reportedly, leaves Johnson restricted in his ability to choose a successor to Sir Mark as Cabinet Secretary. While the Civil Service Commission has not resisted the appointment of Frost, it is expected to insist on the rigid enforcement of the rules for the appointment of the next Cabinet Secretary.

Johnson will still seek to have his way, and we report this morning that he aims to have a Brexiteer in the role. But civil service reform is a battle that has been fought and lost many times and there is no guarantee that this PM will come out victorious.



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Westminster Round-up

You can find all of our Covid-19 coverage on our special coronavirus home page and our coronavirus liveblog.

Boris “FDR” Johnson | Today’s big announcement is that the Government plans to spend an additional £1.5 billion on school infrastructure, with one third going towards urgent repairs and two thirds towards a wave of new school buildings with construction starting next September. The announcement is part of a preview of a major speech by the PM tomorrow in which he will set out vast new spending plans and the details of “Project Speed”, which aims to cut the time it takes to approve and build infrastructure projects.

The PM is expected to announce a “decade of investment” with tens of billions of extra spending on top of existing pledges such as HS2. Gove set out some of the thinking behind the plans in his speech at the weekend, claiming that it was inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal for the Depression-era US which involved massive public works.

Johnson’s plan is expected to involve prisons, schools, roads, railways, housing and the already announced hospital building plans. It also seems likely that it will involve green projects, given that Government spending is meant to be compliant with the net-zero target.

The speech is both a relaunch and reaffirmation of the Government’s “levelling up” agenda, which risked being derailed by Covid-19, and an attempt to shift the narrative after a difficult few weeks for the PM. It will be followed on Wednesday by an announcement of “air bridges” to holiday destinations and on Thursday by plans for getting children back to school in September.

Lurking in the background, of course, is the threat of resurgent virus. Yesterday, Sir Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the Sage advisory group, warned that Britain was on “a knife edge” and that a second wave of infections was coming. At the same time, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, confirmed reports that the Government was considering the first localised lockdown in Leicester, which has seen a surge in cases. Johnson and Co may be keen to move on, but if the virus is not kept in check, their best-laid plans to rebuild Britain could lie in tatters.


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