Tuesday, November 15, 2011

When politicians and civil servants clash

The toppled head of the UK Border Agency Brodie Clark hit back at his former ministerial boss Theresa May today, claiming that despite her claims, he had never exceeded his authority. This amounts to a stinging attack and suggests that May misled parliament in claiming otherwise, to save her own skin.

Neutral civil servants hate being politicised or being pushed into political storms. I see their point. Secretaries of  state are there to carry the political can, not their servants. In a reversal of historical assumptions that the civil service is naturally conservative, their current Tory masters view their servants with great scepticism.

This row reminds me of one that rumbled on and on in the early days of New Labour's second term.

When Stephen Byers' Labour special advisor Jo Moore famously thought 9-11 a "good day to bury bad news"  the email was leaked and a political row erupted. The neutral head of departmental communications Martin Sixsmith got fed up and later said "Princess Margaret is being buried [on Friday]. I will absolutely not allow anything else to be". 

Sixsmith was eventually forced to quit over the row, together with Moore. 

After quitting the civil service Sixsmith made no secret of his unhappiness at being forced out. His autobiography was blocked, so he turned it into a novel, Spin, released in 2004, two years after he left his job. He has since written several books and contributed to Armando Ianucci's superb political satire The Thick of It. 

Has May created a spurned civil servant and in the process done the very opposite of saving her skin? Time will tell but it seems likely that she will only come out of this row looking worse. 

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