Every prime minister has at some stage been frustrated with the machinery of government. They feel it is not geared to delivering their manifestos or, in more paranoid moments, that civil servants are engaged in sabotage. But the current intensity of Downing Street’s hostility to Whitehall is abnormal. Boris Johnson does not stoop to public attacks on senior mandarins, but his aides and parliamentary outriders talk about the civil service as an enemy. That view flows from the belief – not always wrong; usually exaggerated – that most civil servants thought Brexit was a mistake and approach it in terms of damage limitation. Mr Johnson wants the company of people who see only glorious opportunities in the UK’s separation from the EU. That prejudice breeds impatience with evidence and disregard for people who rely on it. That is a recipe for bad government.
Mr Johnson has already lost a chancellor by demanding that the Treasury surrender any independence from No 10. Sajid Javid resigned rather than tolerate institutional debilitation. Whether his successor, Rishi Sunak, puts up with it has yet to be seen. There might be gains in political efficiency from a submissive Treasury, but there are costs in downgrading a powerhouse of experience in economic policy. Suspicion of Whitehall also radiates from Downing Street’s defence of Priti Patel, the home secretary, over allegations of bullying. It is normal for the prime minister to take an ally’s side when there are rival accounts of what has happened, but the anonymous Conservative “sources” who have been pressing Ms Patel’s case go much further. They accuse Home Office officials of campaigning against their boss because of her political stances. The ugly inference is that officials who say they have been bullied are lying and their motive is softness on immigration and crime.
There is often a trade-off in ministerial appointments between competence, loyalty and ideology. Prime ministers like cabinets that agree with them, but also need departments to be run well. Mr Johnson seems uninterested in balancing that equation. What matters is belief in a project that sometimes looks as if it only exists to remake Britain as a regulatory autarky away from Europe. There is no room on board for people who are mindful of the risks. Since that is a function the civil service traditionally performs, the Brexit revolution must bulldoze its way through the established structures of government. Such is the ambition of Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, whose belief in the archaism and inadequacy of a permanent civil service is well documented. He thinks it lacks agility and imagination, which is often true. It is not true that a better system can be reached by waging total war on the system in place.
The challenge of dealing with coronavirus is instructive on this point. The politics of managing an epidemic demonstrate the value of expertise (in science and medicine) alongside the need for a professional bureaucracy (to administer emergency measures). The Johnson-Cummings doctrine denigrates those qualities, but relies on them in a crisis. Politics always contains tension between politicians’ demand for quick change and the institutional caution of the civil service. Ministerial memoirs are full of battles on this front. Nearly always some accommodation was reached, and change happened. But Mr Johnson’s team are playing a more dangerous game. They do not just see the civil service as inefficient at delivering their goals. They see breaking the apparatus of government as a goal in itself and its impartial staff as enemies to be crushed in order to complete a revolution. That would be a hazardous undertaking even in the hands of serious, evidence-led politicians. But Mr Johnson does not like having those around, perhaps because he is not one himself.