Scrabbling for power: Why the minority government will be left drawing blanks on policy
Civil servants fear uncertainty and, these days, a lack of direction is a real challenge for government, says Andrew Greenway
Political activists mark last month's election result in Whitehall Credit: PA
They say that, in war and Scrabble, the best move must be the one your opponent least wants you to make. Whitehall’s traditional foe is uncertainty. On June 9, the cabinet secretary watched as the other side of the board picked all the letters up off its tile rack and unfurled “MINORITY” across a triple word score. This was an unexpected masterstroke, and not good news.
Because, to extend this Scrabble analogy further than is really acceptable, the bag of remaining letters is looking light. The Brexit negotiating timetable is set; the game should be finished by April 2019. With each passing month, the board gets more congested.
As the dust starts to settle, instability remains the number one concern of the senior civil service. Leaving the minority government issue to one side for a second, any election is a chaos engine. The prime minister has resisted the urge to rejig the cabinet team much. There wasn’t much political wriggle room for her to do otherwise. May and No. 10 took the majority of the blame for the election result; she consequently absorbed the resulting personnel changes.
The fallout hitting the prime minister’s inner circle saw 11 senior advisers walk out the door in two weeks. Some officials may consider this bittersweet because of the characters involved (people I have spoken to off the record are delighted by the departure of one or two) but it means a lot of fresh relationship building is now required between senior officials and No. 10. This at a moment where the centre is pivotal, and time short.
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That said, it is easy to forget that the vast majority of civil servants have few dealings with the rarefied world of Downing Street, if any. For most of them, the real concern over the last month or so has been of direction. Things weren’t great before the election. Now they appear to be getting worse.
It is much easier for a senior official to motivate their team if they are bringing a clear message from the minister. These clear messages must be hung on a relatively coherent vision for the country that has been publicly articulated in some depth. They must fit a picture. “Brexit means Brexit” is not a picture, it is a tautology. There’s a reason why Thatcher and Blair are -isms, and May will not be.
Before the election, several officials working in a variety of departments and grades told me that they felt as if they were fumbling in the dark. Nobody could tell them with real confidence that what they were doing was on the right lines; not their boss, not their minister, not even No. 10.
“Theresa May and No. 10 took the majority of the blame for the election result; she consequently absorbed the resulting personnel changes”
Pitched into this confused world, we have the novelty of a minority government. Ministers traditionally complain that civil servants don’t pay enough attention to parliament; now most will have little choice.
As former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell has pointed out, the main impact of minority government is an increase in backroom political deal-making. Nick Macpherson, the former Treasury chief, suggested on Twitter that the £1bn deal reached by May with the DUP is no more than a downpayment. What will follow is a much more hand-to-mouth executive than one bound together by a coalition agreement.
Political deals are nothing new of course, and in fact are essential in greasing the wheels of every major process in the machine. Spending reviews, for example, would get nowhere without those brief conversations where officials are politely asked to leave the room.
But these are in extremis. When you know that the outcome of any piece of careful policy analysis may be little more than a chip to be run across the back of a minister’s fingers at the poker table, it does rather take the gloss off making sure all the evidence supporting it is just so. Civil servants will not respond to this by downing tools and ringing in half-baked advice. Even so, when you combine a deal-making administration with deadlines, evidence-based policy can be the casualty. Those who have worked hard to articulate a case for rational policy changes are scanning the ideological runes of the DUP for pitfalls. Officials with a bias for science and diversity are preparing the barricades.
But it is important not to ignore the few positive notes that remain. The fragility of this government may encourage those who prefer a “wait and see” approach, and that is already bringing parts of Whitehall to a crawl. Yet there are many across the civil service who have generated their own momentum and are maintaining it despite the trying circumstances. The civil service’s best bits – the resilient doers, deliverers and optimists – are still there, and still getting things done. They are embracing the uncertainty with openness, and encouraging their teams to do the same.
Perhaps we should have a few more of them on the Brexit negotiating team.
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