Barwell’s memoir. The more conscientious he becomes, the less illuminating this book is

13 Nov

Chief of Staff: Notes from Downing Street  by Gavin Barwell

Advisers, Gavin Barwell says, are too important. That is an admirably un-self-important conclusion for an adviser to reach.

Barwell served as Theresa May’s Chief of Staff from just after the disastrous general election of 2017 until at last she sank beneath the waves in the summer of 2019.

At the end of his 400-page account, he says:

“If I were to do it all again, my first piece of advice to Theresa would be that she should invest more time in her relationships with senior colleagues. The Thatcher ministry was sustained by the support of people like Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit; the Blair ministry by John Prescott and Peter Mandelson; the Cameron ministry by George Osborne and William Hague. Theresa didn’t have key lieutenants of this stature around her. Thirty or forty years ago, the House of Commons sat late most nights, but today it only sits late on Mondays. This has helped to make it more family-friendly, but at the expense of ministers spending more time together. At the same time, there has been an explosion in the number of political advisers. They are the people ministers now spend most of their time with, and that’s a mistake.”

He makes a good point. There has been a growing tendency, when anything goes wrong, to call in new advisers, to replace or supplement those already there.

The deficiencies in the Downing Street machine, its inability to run smoothly under Boris Johnson and the frequency with which faulty decisions have to be reversed, have become a staple of political commentary.

But as Barwell observes, “When the chips are down, politicians depend on the support of their [ministerial] colleagues.”

At Chequers, in the summer of 2018, May’s problem was that she could not carry David Davis and Boris Johnson with her.

It is impossible as Foreign Secretary – the post to which she appointed Johnson in the summer of 2016 – to achieve much unless the Prime Minister of the day takes you into his or her confidence.

This May never did with Johnson. When she was in her pomp – a period hard to recall, but it lasted until she made a hash of the 2017 general election – she made jokes at his expense and shut him out of any serious discussion of how to get Brexit done.

Barwell was not at this stage at her side, but one doubts whether he would have been able to get her to behave in any other way. As Home Secretary, she was notoriously disinclined to confide in colleagues, and this habit served her well.

In Number 10, it did not serve her well. Before Chequers, a row blew up about the Northern Ireland backstop, and she held meetings with several senior ministers in order to try to square them:

“The conversation with Boris was probably the worst meeting of her premiership. He was so rude that I came close to interrupting and asking him to leave. He said we’d made a massive mistake in signing up to the Joint Report. Why had we agreed to all this mumbo jumbo about Northern Ireland? He was normally the person telling us to get a move on, but now he was arguing that we shouldn’t publish anything.”

One begins to see Barwell’s limitations as an historian. He doesn’t give us the actual words spoken by Johnson, which must have been vivid. We are fobbed off with a paraphrase: more scrupulous, but less illuminating and enjoyable.

And this is a problem throughout the book. Barwell was there, but is too well-behaved to tell us what he heard.

We instead find ourselves wading through an official report in which any dramatic moment is deliberately rendered less dramatic. Here is part of his account of how at the end of 2017 the Joint Report came about:

“Then, just a few days before the Prime Minister was due to meet President Juncker, the EU negotiating team presented our team with revised text on Northern Ireland, which went much further than we were expecting. The key section was what would become paragraph 49 of the Joint Report that was published a week later. It said that the UK was committed to protecting north-south co-operation and avoiding a hard border, and that we hoped to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK future relationship, but should this not be possible, we would propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland; in their absence, we would maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which supported north-south co-operation…

“The Prime Minister was hugely frustrated when Olly told her about this text. She was exasperated at being asked to make commitments about what we would do if we couldn’t reach an agreement about our future relationship before we’d even had a chance to talk about it…

“Nevertheless, it was clear that if we rejected the text outright, we would not be able to achieve ‘sufficient progress’. What, then, should we do? We were the ones under time pressure; the EU could stick to its position, safe in the knowledge that a parliamentary majority was opposed to no deal, so the UK would have to compromise sooner or later. The Prime Minister began to think about whether we could live with the text…”

One would not guess, from Barwell’s dreary language, that a fatal concession is being made. This stuff goes on for page after page, and what is particularly infuriating is that the book has no index, which makes it of far less value to historians and other researchers.

If one wishes to check some particular point, or to see whether Barwell has anything illuminating to say about a particular individual, one has to wade one’s way through bureaucratic language which has the effect of obfuscating, unless one is a bureaucrat, what is actually going on.

The whole sorry story is set out in Roderick Crawford’s authoritative account, The Northern Ireland Protocol: The Origins of the Present Crisis, published at the start of this month by Policy Exchange.

Lord Frost’s preface to that account has already appeared on ConHome. Frost was at that point a special adviser to Johnson. It was immediately clear that “a crucial pass had been sold”, but also that if the Foreign Secretary resigned, on what could be made to seem like a horribly dull technicality, it would be impossible to explain to the public what all the fuss was about.

May persuaded herself that “we could live with the text”, even though it failed to take account of relations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is easy, of course, to be wise after the event, and to forget how weak her position had already become. At the time, it seemed bizarre that she could stagger on for as long as she did.

Why this life in death? Barwell reminds us that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act “had taken away the Prime Minister’s ability to call an election at a time of their choosing, removing the ultimate threat with which a government could get rebel MPs to back its key policies”.

But May had already fired that weapon without any pressing need to do so: in 2017 she called an election and was then unable to present the public with a convincing reason for asking their opinion, which they reckoned they had made clear in the 2016 referendum.

Barwell came on board after that election, in which he lost his seat, Croydon Central, held since 2010. May evidently felt at ease with him, and it is clear that he possesses many of the same virtues as her: he is honest, conscientious, masters the detail and has a deep knowledge of Conservative politics, in which he has been engaged in various capacities since leaving Trinity College, Cambridge in 1993.

These are valuable qualities, but as May demonstrated, they are not sufficient.

At the start of a chapter entitled Media Relations, Barwell remarks: “Theresa wasn’t very interested in communications.” He adds that “Part of me admires her for this”: he would prefer a Prime Minister “who was focussed on getting the decisions right to one who was more interested in photo opportunities”.

But part of the trouble with putting off the moment of communication is that you can suppress your doubts about whether you are doing something which, when presented to the public, will prove justifiable.

In his memoir, Barwell gives scant sign of being interested in communications. Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, texts him after they have attended the weekly meeting of permanent secretaries to say: “All my colleagues think you would make a great perm sec.”

The compliment is deserved, but is perhaps why this book reads like a civil service training manual, with virtually no attempt to interest the general reader.

Sarah Ingham: Greensill – not so much “what does Jeremy think?” as “what on earth was Jeremy thinking?”

17 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

The Greensill controversy has come like pennies from heaven – and definitely not in a brown envelope – for the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

After a year as Labour leader, his personal Key Stage 1, SKeir Starmer’s approval ratings are at best tepid. Unsurprisingly at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, he sought to join various dots – ‘dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates’ – to conjure up a picture of the return of Tory sleaze.

The former Director of Public Prosecutions clearly wishes to make the case that this Conservative administration is as tainted by corruption as John Major’s was almost three decades ago.

Sir Keir might have leapt on the Greensill bandwagon a tad hastily, without really knowing where it might end up. Although a former Conservative Prime Minister is ostensibly the star of the saga, it is becoming clear that this is might not be a story about Westminster, but Whitehall; about mandarins, not MPs and ministers.

Photographed with Lex Greensill, David Cameron’s very own Deal in the Desert raises a number of questions, not least whether the Aussie has shares in R.M Williams. But surely the most famous blue-suited bromance since Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper were at Centre Court for the 2013 Wimbledon Men’s Final – however funny-odd the image is – has begun to fade compared with the more recent revelations about civil servants’ moonlighting.

The United Kingdom’s Chief Procurement Officer oversees a budget of £40 billion. The demands of looking after that huge amount of taxpayers’ hard-earned money apparently failed to preclude a side-hustle of working for Greensill for a couple of months. And it seems that Bill Crothers’ ‘one man, two guvnors’ approach might not be an isolated instance in Whitehall.

On Thursday, Lord Pickles, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which guides former ministers and civil servants on outside employment, stated there ‘doesn’t seem to have been any boundaries at all’ between civil servants and the private sector.

The previous day at Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson suggested that it was not clear that those boundaries ‘have been properly understood’, although he thought that ‘it is a good idea in principle that top civil servants should be able to engage with business and should have experience of the private sector.’

As Crothers’ former boss, the late Lord Heywood of Whitehall, found, private sector experience is complicated. What Does Jeremy Think?  written by his widow Suzanne, details his three-year mid-career stint at Morgan Stanley, a job he took up in early 2004 ‘following the three months of unpaid leave required by the Cabinet Office’).

On his return to the civil service, working for Gordon Brown in the Cabinet Office, Heywood’s banking experience and contacts proved invaluable following the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath. Conversely, Morgan Stanley may have benefited from Heywood’s input in its pitch to work for QinetiQ, the former government defence research agency, which the bank hoped it would be able to help float on the Stock Exchange.

Ever since the Greensill story broke, the media has been gripped by an ethical panic, emulated this week by MPs. Sir Keir’s call for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the saga was defeated by 95 votes. This reminder of dismal political reality for the Opposition turns out to have been unnecessary. In a Parliamentary pile-on, no fewer than seven inquiries into lobbying have been set up, including by the Treasury Select Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Such inquiries are pointless – creating as much hot air as the demands this week that Something Must Be Done. Something usually involves political grandstanding, followed by gratuitous legislation.

These inquiries should save themselves their time and our money by examining the existing ethical framework that governs the conduct of MPs, civil servants and others in the public sector. If the 1990s is being revisited by anyone trying to build a case concerning Conservative corruption, they should focus not on cash for questions, but the answers provided by Lord Nolan’s 1995 Report on Standards in Public Life.

This sets out expected ethical standards – including honesty, openness and integrity – because, as Nolan stated more than a generation ago, ‘people in public life are not always as clear as they should be about where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie’.

In a 1993 MORI poll cited by Nolan, only 14 per cent of respondents generally trusted that politicians would tell the truth, opposed to 37 per cent trusting civil servants. MPs planning to involve themselves in Greensill autopsies should perhaps reflect on the finding that 69 per cent thought it wrong to accept free tickets to Wimbledon or other sporting events. Whether the public’s attitude towards freebies has changed since then is surely something to be considered by the Committee on Standards. Its on-going inquiry into the Code of Conduct for MPs is timely.

As Cabinet Secretary to two Prime Ministers and Head of the Home Civil Service, Heywood sought to modernise the mandarinate, while adhering to the overarching principles of public service, first set down in the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report: honesty, integrity and political impartiality.

Westminster and Whitehall are already bound by numerous laws and rules and, overseen by supervisory bodies such as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The thickets of formal regulation that have grown up in the past few decades did not prevent Greensill or the MPs’ expenses’ scandal.

In January, the Standards Committee heard that the plethora of existing guidance can be ‘byzantine’. In his evidence, Graham Brady observed that something is lost if we move to a world where we are expecting absolute, detailed compliance with a detailed set of rules, ‘rather than an overarching expectation that members should behave with integrity and honesty’.

The rush towards Something Must Be Done should be paused. How about dusting off Nolan and Northcote-Trevelyan – and having a fresh look at ethics, values and standards, as well as the concept of trust?

Or, in another echo of the 1990s, going back to basics.

Iain Dale: Forget the theories around Frost’s appointment. What does it mean for Gove?

19 Feb

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

There are so many theories about Lord Frost’s appointment to the Cabinet that it’s almost worth dismissing them all.

It’s a real “what did Boris mean by that” moment, one which Metternich might have been scratching his head at.

Having replaced Frost as National Security Adviser, a job he had precious few qualifications for, Johnson certainly owed him one.

And given the number of post-Brexit deal bumps in the road there have been, there’s certainly a need to up our game in unpicking some of the more outrageous consequences of what we signed up to.

For instance, one paper reported that it’s now impossible to export trees from Great Britain to Northern Ireland if they have soil on their roots. Yet it’s perfectly OK for Northern Ireland to take trees from Spain or Sicily. Work that one out if you can.

This is but one example of UK industries which have had to take a hit as a consequence of loose drafting or things which the UK side in the talks clearly didn’t understand.

Michael Gove has been trying to unpick this sort of thing with his European Commission counterpart, but now Frost will be taking over.

So what does this mean for Gove?

People are reading this two ways. Some see it as a humiliation for the Minister for the Cabinet Office and that he’s sliding down the greasy pole to be summarily despatched at the next reshuffle. For many that is wishful thinking.

I suspect the opposite is true and that the Cabinet’s only real transformational minister is heading back to run a department, and bring his powers of reform and regeneration to either the Department of Health or the Home Office.

However, any reshuffle isn’t likely to take place before the late Spring, or even late Autumn. So the jockeying for position will continue for a good few months yet.

– – – – – – – – –

On Sunday I read that Suzanne Heywood’s biography of her husband Jeremy had entered The Sunday Times top ten non-fiction bestsellers.

Jeremy Heywood was at the centre of UK government for 30 years, and was a fascinating character, rising through the ranks to become Cabinet Secretary under David Cameron and Theresa May. He very sadly died of cancer in November 2018.

I started reading the book on Saturday afternoon, as I was due to interview Suzanne on Monday morning.

I had little expectation of being able to finish it by then, as it is a massive 540 pages in length. However, I couldn’t put it down.

Far from being a dry civil service style memoir, it’s a real page turner. I eventually got to the last page at 2.15am on Monday morning, and then experienced that slight feeling of grief I always get when I finish a book I didn’t want to end.

I can’t imagine a single reader of this column not enjoying it. I highly recommend it.

My interview with Suzanne will be on my Book Club podcast next Friday.

– – – – – – – – –

It comes to something when a government agency stands accused of “misleading” a parliamentary committee, but this is just what HMRC is facing this week.

It’s over evidence it gave on the controversial loan charge, which has affected thousands of innocent independent contractors.

HMRC was more interested in saving its own reputation than telling the truth, the All Party Parliamentary Committee on the Loan Charge told The Guardian this week.

It has emerged that HMRC is using the very same contractors that it is attempting to penalise. Hypocrisy of the highest order.

The committee concluded that HMRC had “put management of their reputation and public relations ahead of telling the truth, including to the point of providing statements designed to give a misleading impression and withholding the truth when they discovered it. This is simply not acceptable for any governmental body and may… represent a breach of the civil service code”.

In addition to this the Government is implementing its IR35 legislation in April, which will further penalise independent contractors by ruining their cashflow and forcing them to be paid as employees but with none of the benefits of being employees.

Philip Hammond is entirely to blame for this attack on entrepreneurial people, most of whom are natural Conservative voters.

It is a scandal that a Conservative government should use Corbynista type anti-business prejudice in this way. Were I a Conservative party member I would have resigned over it long ago.

If Rishi Sunak wishes to ingratiate himself with small business people he would get a lot more than three cheers if he stood up on March 3 and announced in his budget that he was scrapping both the loan charge and IR35.

It’s what any proper Conservative chancellor would do.

Simone Finn: Civil Service reform. Gove and Case will drive forward the legacy of Heywood and Maude – who’s back to help

8 Sep

Baroness Finn is a Conservative peer, non-executive director at the Cabinet Office and a member of the Commission for Smart Government.

In a year when the Covid pandemic has rocked the machinery of government and tested the civil service’s ability to deliver for the nation, we should welcome the appointment of Simon Case as the new Cabinet Secretary. His former mentor, the great constitutional historian, Peter Hennessey, has hailed his formidable intellect and “heavy-duty powers of organisation”. Case not only understands Whitehall. He has also won the confidence of the Prime Minister with the quality of his advice and his proven ability to think of different ways of doing things.

The challenges are daunting. The civil service has a less than perfect record of implementation, and now, more than ever, needs people with the right capabilities and skills to deliver better services to citizens. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has shown some of the best of public service, has also exposed structural weaknesses in our bureaucracy, from the data deficiencies of the A-levels fiasco, the digital defects of the NHSX contact-tracing app, and the friction between devolved and centralised power.

As Paul Maynard wrote for ConservativeHome earlier this week, “the machinery of state has shown itself to lack the bandwidth and agility required to deliver complexity at pace.” The problems were already in evidence.  All modern governments face challenges from rising consumer demands, the rapid advance of technology and limited resources. But the public health and economic crises mean that reform is now inescapable.

As a veteran of the Francis Maude and Jeremy Heywood era of civil service reform during the Coalition Government, I know that reform must be continuous. There was a lot of change during this period, only some of which has been properly entrenched.

The setting up of cross-cutting functions at the centre of government and imposition of spending controls saved many billions of pounds and brought in crucial expertise in key areas such as commercial procurement, digital government, and major project management. The creation of the Government Digital Service meant that the UK went to the top of the UN digital rankings in 2016, having been a byword for incompetence in 2009. But there is much more to do.

As I argued at the Institute for Government earlier in the year, the risk-averse culture in the civil service, which has stifled innovation from many brilliant officials, must be replaced by an entrepreneurial attitude that empowers civil servants to experiment and take calculated risks.

The endless meetings and obsession with process that hinder timely implementation have to stop. We need to break down the departmental silos and allow ideas and best practice to flow across government. We also need the political layer to sustain their focus on the need to support reform.

A crucial difference between 2010 and now is the greater willingness of senior civil servants to acknowledge failings in the civil service. During the Coalition Government, Maude was heavily criticised for saying that things needed to change.

He always said that we have some of the best civil servants in the world – I had the privilege of working with many of them and they articulated the problems far better than many ministers – but when Maude highlighted the faults in the service, it was almost seen as heresy and he was attacked by some retired mandarins for having the impertinence to suggest that change was needed.

That culture of ultra-defensiveness, born out of a strange cocktail of insecurity and complacency, has to change. The fact that it has become commonplace to acknowledge the problems and need for change is important – and a key legacy of Maude and Heywood’s leadership

There is a significant appetite for reform at the top of government. Boris Johnson has talked of the frustration of pulling levers and finding they are not attached to anything. He has charged Michael Gove, one of the Government’s strongest ministers and a proven reformer, with driving through a transformation of the civil service machine.

His Ditchley Lecture – thoughtful, provocative and inspiring – set out the moral case for change and made clear that achieving Johnson’s ambition of levelling up the country depends on making the system of government work better.

Maude has been brought back to conduct a short review of the Government’s central capabilities to identify where progress has slipped. Downing Street staff, including the Prime Minister’s advisers and policy unit, are moving to a new ‘command centre” at the Cabinet Office as part of plans to integrate its functions more closely with Number 10.

The best ideas for reform won’t come from within government alone. We need to hear from those who have worked in and with the civil service about what could be done better. That’s why I’ve joined the Commission for Smart Government which was launched last month to consider how to make public administration more effective.

Nick Herbert, the radically-minded former minister and Chair of the Commission, has rightly argued that systemic problems are too often blamed on civil servants when politicians are equally responsible for failure. Ministers can be at fault here – too often uninterested in institutional reform, chasing headlines, and jumping from idea to idea. When we consider how to ensure that the executive has the right skills and experience, we also need to think about how to equip ministers as well.

The Commission, which has an impressive membership of experts and senior leaders, is consulting on the key questions about the UK’s public administration. What are the examples of best practice from which we can learn? How can we attract the best people, nurture their talents and retain world-class public officials? How can we use transparency and accountability to drive efficiency? How can we maximise the public benefit from the targeted deployment of data science and artificial intelligence? How can we harness technological innovation to drive better governance as one of the commissioners, Daniel Korski, has proposed?

The Commission’s consultation is being conducted on an open platform, making our draft papers and evidence sessions visible, and encouraging all those with ideas and experience to contribute. We want to encourage all those interested in better government to contribute practical ideas for a fundamental overhaul of the British state

This pandemic will not be the last major crisis we face. The civil service needs to be confident in its ability to lead the world in the quality of its crisis response and proud of its track record of delivering for all corners of the UK.

This Government’s success depends on the ability of the civil service to implement policies, projects and manifesto promises. On his appointment, Case said that it was a privilege to “lead a service that is working day in, day out to deliver for people right across the country.” This Government has big ambitions. He must ensure that Whitehall can deliver them.