Politicians and civil servants have more in common than either “side” would care to admit. Apart from their very obvious dedication to serving the British public, they both share a taste for ambiguous language, the delicate drawing of a veil of bureaucratese over even the most messiest, most sordid of imbroglios. Yet sometimes the truth pokes through the obfuscation.

The recent departure of Sir Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary and national security adviser, from government is a case in point. Reading between the lines of the very latest documentation relating to his leaving the government, it looks very much like Sir Mark may have been paid off because he threatened to take the prime minister to an employment tribunal for unfair, ie constructive, dismissal. In such circumstances a good deal of dirty Downing Street laundry would tumble out into the public domain. Still, the usual courtesies are maintained in public.

In his earlier, oddly and obviously carefully phrased letter to the prime minister, Sir Mark states that “we have agreed that I will stand down and leave government service at the end of September”. In other words, to save embarrassment on all sides, Sir Mark was not sacked, fired, dumped or forced out; but neither did he resign or retire in any normal sense of the term. He “stood down”, a suitably euphemistic term straight from the official golden glossary. Like “stepping back”, “spending more time with my family”, “personal reasons”, “pursuing fresh opportunities”, “entirely in agreement with government policy” and many others, everyone knows what it means.

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