Big disagreements over hard Brexit and ECHR

Sir Humphreys vs Tory right

Some civil service mandarins have a different political agenda from their Tory ministers. Indeed, Eddie Ford suspects that the Labour shadow cabinet is far more to their liking

Recently we have had a whole rash of mini-scandals about Tory politicians. In and of themselves, these stories are pretty boring - we are hardly talking Donald Trump-style sensations about serial sexual abuse, rape, porn actresses, dodgy property deals or conspiracies to overthrow the constitution. Rather, attending drink parties, shouting and speeding. However, if only by inference, they all add up to a bigger picture of a civil service - more accurately sections of the civil service particularly concerned with foreign policy, the law and education - pitted against Tory ministers who are part of a party convulsed by chronic internal divisions.

We might as well start with the most recent and newsworthy mini-scandal - yes, Boris Johnson again. Where would the newspapers be without him? Though the story gets a bit involved (or tedious), he got referred to the police over renewed claims that he broke lockdown rules by hosting family and friends at Chequers during the height of the Covid pandemic. These visits were found in his official diary by his government-funded lawyers, as they prepared his defence for the public inquiry into the pandemic led by Lady Hallett. In turn, they raised the issue with senior officials in the cabinet office - who then referred the matter to the police, as they were obliged to do under the civil service code, and also to the parliamentary privileges committee, which is investigating whether Johnson lied to the House of Commons over ‘Partygate’. Yes, it is hard to imagine the former prime minister lying about anything, but he has now split with those lawyers over the police referral - saying he has “lost faith” in the system and is currently “unrepresented”. Boris, the underdog, up against the powerful British establishment!


The Johnson team called the referral a “clearly politically motivated attempt to manufacture something out of nothing” - perhaps an accusation not to be entirely dismissed - and his close allies are talking bitterly about a “stitch-up”, warning Rishi Sunak to stop the “witch-hunts” against those strongly associated with a hard Brexit. For them, the decision to hand over evidence of gatherings at Chequers during the pandemic was the “final straw” - they accused cabinet office ministers of having signed off the decision to pass on the former prime minister’s diaries to the police. This has been strictly denied, of course, but, according to the Daily Mail - which never gets anything wrong - Johnson has threatened to sue the cabinet office in retaliation.

On the other hand, the Sunak government has been accused of a “cover-up” because the cabinet office has been refusing to hand over unredacted versions of Johnson’s correspondence and documentation, and is now claiming to the inquiry that it does not have his WhatsApp messages in its possession or the ‘24 notebooks’ containing contemporaneous notes made by the former prime minister. Not true, reply Johnson supporters: their innocent hero has handed over all this material to the government-appointed lawyers - who then stabbed him in the back by grassing him up to the police! Apparently, with the temperature getting feverish, there were attempted peace talks last week between Sunak and Johnson - but they broke down when No10 insisted that Oliver Dowden must be involved in the process.

As the secretary of state for the cabinet office, not to mention the current deputy prime minister (they seem to give the job to anyone these days), the Johnsonites think he is the weasel who leaked the information that some of the former PM’s diaries had been handed over to the police. But there could be other culprits, of course, like disgruntled civil servants with a hotline to the media. Anyway, we are now in a situation where Lady Hallet has demanded that the full cache of messages and diaries be handed over to the inquiry before the first public evidence session. But cabinet office lawyers say the inquiry does not have the powers to request access to all documents, which raises the interesting prospect of legal arbitration and a potential judicial review. It goes without saying that launching a legal challenge against the ruling by the head of a public inquiry would be an unprecedented step, even for a desperate rightwing Tory government.

Then we have Suella Braverman, home secretary and another hero of the hard Brexit right. Last month it was reported that, when attorney general, she was caught speeding by police and then asked her civil servants whether they could arrange for her an “option” to take a driving awareness course as a private one-to-one session rather than the standard group course with a load of proles. They said. ‘No, minister, we are not paid to do that’, and reported the request to the cabinet office. She then asked one of her political aides to fix it so that, when doing the online Zoom courses, aliases could be used and her camera switched off. Alas for Suella, the course providers said those options were not available either. Trying to put the flames out, Rishi Sunak consulted the ‘ethics chief’, Sir Laurie Magnus, as to whether this was a breach of the ministerial code - who, in his wisdom, decided it was not, giving Braverman a lucky escape.

Before that, of course, we had Dominic Raab - another former deputy prime minister - accused of being a loud-mouth bully of civil servants. There is little doubt that he is an unpleasant man who likes to dominate others, but top civil servants are made of strong stuff too. However, he was forced to resign and a month later announced that he would stand down as an MP at the next general election - so a result for those forces who wanted him to go. Earlier, in 2020, we had had then home secretary Priti Patel also accused of being beastly to civil servants - specifically for trying to “force out” Sir Philip Rutnam, the most senior civil servant in her department. After threatening to sue for constructive dismissal, Sir Philip came out £340,000 better off, with a further £30,000 in costs. There was an unsuccessful campaign by civil servants and others to get rid of her, but she did not resign as home secretary until September 2020 following the resignation of Boris Johnson and the subsequent election of the hard Brexit zealot Liz Truss as prime minister.

Looking at these incidents, it is not particularly surprising that Tory backbenchers on the right of the party are getting agitated about the Whitehall ‘blob’ underhandedly trying to remove politicians from office - aided and abetted by sections of the media.


Since the initial Dominic Raab scandal, we have been arguing that one aspect of the whole affair is civil service mandarins going for ministers they dislike - so maybe the Tory backbenchers are not being totally paranoid after all. Obviously, we are not talking about office clerks here - though you would think so, given the way the subject is often discussed in the liberal media (or even the left press, sadly enough). No, we are talking about the equivalents of Sir Humphreys from the BBC’s Yes minister series. That is, the people who really run the government, as opposed to ministers and prime ministers who are here today and gone tomorrow (especially at the moment).

We are not suggesting that civil servants are organising a centralised conspiracy out of a favourite club, though it is the case that some top civil servants do like to hang out in the Athenaeum in Pall Mall (if you dine there, you are ‘a somebody’). Instead, what you have is a situation where there are two different political agendas that are growing increasingly apart. Civil servants do not like attacks on them by the likes of Dominic Cummings or Michael Gove. Nor do they like ministers such as Dominic Raab and Suella Braverman, who tarnish Britain’s international image with the Rwandan exercise or by defying the European Court of Human Rights. The latter was established, of course, not by the European Union - which the Daily Mail might have you believe - but rather the Council of Europe, with Winston Churchill being one of its main instigators (he saw it as the first step towards a “kind of United States of Europe”). In other words, there is definitely an anti-hard Brexit agenda in the civil service - especially at the very top.

In a connected question, another thing the civil service finds an anathema is the crazy policy pursued by the government against migration - even to the point of self-harm to the British economy. So the latest wheeze from Suella Braverman and the Tories means stringent curbs on international students who come to study in the UK for year-long Master’s degrees. As from January 1 next year, they will no longer be able to bring dependents or spouses. Nigeria had the highest number of dependants of student visa holders in 2022, with 60,923. Indian nationals had the second highest number, with an increase from 3,135 in 2019 to 38,990 in 2022, followed by students from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Shamefully, but true to character, the Labour Party has said it will not oppose the measures because “proper enforcement” is “long overdue” - getting tough on migrants before the election. Of course, what we know about these students is that they are mainly very talented, not for picking fruit in some god-forsaken field. The university sector is saying that these students are absolutely vital for their business plans, given that you had a shift in the university system under John Major. Not only were universities there to fill jobs at the top of the labour force and act as a transmission belt into the ruling class itself: they were also there to act as a business money-earner for UK plc - the ivory tower being banished to the past. Meaning that loads of universities today are financially dependent on foreign students - hence are in danger of going bust because of Brexit and now the new scheme announced by Braverman. If they cannot bring their child or husband with them, many students will vote with their feet by going to America or Germany.

As we have seen above, another crucial factor behind all the stories about scandals is that the Tory Party itself is at civil war, with the different factions going for each other’s throat. A war about who is going to replace Rishi Sunak and what will be the programme of the Tory Party after a Labour victory, which seems the most likely outcome of the next general election. Indeed, a handsome Labour majority is far from impossible, even if some idiot tells you that it cannot happen statistically.

Therefore, in the run-up to the election, you will have civil servants wanting to help shape the incoming Labour government - meeting shadow ministers to influence their policies. In fact, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the top civil servants find the Labour shadow cabinet far more to their liking than the existing one under Rishi Sunak.