The Johnson-Cummings war on the civil service is very troubling. It looks like the start of a rolling coup against institutions

Jonathan Powell
AFP via Getty

The Boris Johnson-Dominic Cummings "hard rain" war against the civil service is deeply troubling. I say this having long been an advocate of civil service reform, overseeing three changes in cabinet secretary in No 10 and as a diplomat who became a special adviser.

I think appointing David Frost as national security adviser is a mistake because he has no background in national security and because he can’t possibly concentrate on the Brexit negotiations and national security at the same time.

Sacking Mark Sedwill is the prime minister’s prerogative but to do so in the middle of the coronavirus crisis and as the culmination of months of anonymous No 10 briefing against him is disgraceful. Requiring a successor to take a pro-Brexit pledge, as Michael Gove appears to suggest, would be even more outrageous.

Approaching civil service reform in this scorched earth fashion won’t bring about real reform but will just build up passive resistance among the civil servants. Or even worse it will lead them to roll over in the face of the threat of losing their jobs and stop providing honest advice.

What really worries me though is that this looks like the beginning of a rolling coup. It starts with the civil service then moves on to the judiciary and the BBC. In the absence of a written constitution we depend on rules and conventions to provide checks and balances on an over mighty executive.

Once a government starts driving a coach and horses through those rules we have precious little by way of protection. Consider the alleged behaviour of the planning minister Robert Jenrick, and the failure of Johnson to take action.

The defence rolled out by the government is that the Americans make political appointments to public service jobs. That is to show extraordinary ignorance about the chronic problems in the American system.

The whole top layer of the public service, thousands of jobs – including ambassadors – change every time the president changes. It means there is no continuity in government, many jobs not being filled at all during a Presidency, and that pretty much all administrative decisions are politicised. Consider for example the fate of the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump.

It was in this way the populist wars against the constitutional system began in Hungary and the Czech Republic. They had elections, but they gradually began to undermine the judiciary and the public service until there was no check on the leader’s decisions.

Of course that is how Trump has behaved in sacking any public servant he felt was disloyal by whistleblowing or who he – often mistakenly – thought was opposed to him and using the government for his personal advantage. Read John Bolton’s book.

People will say this is overstated. This is Britain, we are a democracy and we will muddle through somehow. But that’s what people said in Poland and Hungary and that’s what people said as Trump took over. It didn’t prevent the alarming degradation of their political systems. Unless a few individuals had been brave enough to stand up to the populists we wouldn’t now see the possibility of reversing their rise in all of these countries.

The corruption of constitutional order can happen very quickly and reversing it can take a very long time and at huge cost. Of course it is an election that allows us to change governments who behave in such a way. But our election is four years off and so we have to rely on Conservative MPs, who keep Johnson-Cummings in office, to have the courage to stop this drift or replace them and the pressure of the opposition to hold the government to account.

They will only fulfil their roles if people realise what is happening and begin to resist.

Jonathan Powell was Downing Street chief of staff from 1997 to 2007

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