civil service

A hard rain in Westminster: Is this the end of the Civil Service as we know it?

Dominic Cummings is promising vast change - so why have so many senior civil servants quit?

Sir Jonathan Jones. Sir Mark Sedwill. Simon McDonald. Philip Rutnam. Sir Richard Heaton. Jonathan Slater. What do all these people have in common? Until recently they were all senior members of the Civil Service – and in the last six months they’ve all resigned or, as many see it, been forced out.

And while this steady stream of departures has been ongoing for months, this week things really stepped up, with more high-level resignations announced in a dramatic fashion. The causes have officially been varied: Brexit, the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, internal tensions. In reality, however, all signs point to one culprit – Dominic Cummings.

Boris Johnson’s right-hand man has never been shy about his desire to reform the civil service and now, as Downing Street’s top team moves to a new ‘control centre’ in Whitehall and he promises a “hard rain” is on the way for everyone else, it seems his plans are finally coming to fruition. But what exactly is it he wants? What will the civil service look like when he’s done? And why does nobody else seem to be on board?


First hints at the storm to come came way back in January when Tory manifesto co-author Rachel Wolf wrote in The Daily Telegraph that Whitehall was “woefully underprepared” for the true scale of the planned changes. Once the small matter of leaving the EU was out of the way, Cummings real master plan would commence in full force. Departments would be merged, abolished and created, officials would be forced to take exams to prove their competency (a somewhat ironic statement from a man frequently referred to as ‘the most powerful unelected official in the country’) and the practice of civil servants changing jobs every 18 months would end.

whitehall civil service
Whitehall - home of the Civil Service

This was more than mere speculation on Wolf’s part. In one of his many famously long, rambling posts to his own website, Cummings wrote that “the civil service is broken” and there were “profound problems” in decision making. His answer? To hire “true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos”. One of these ‘weirdos’, a data specialist called Will O’Shea who joined the Cabinet Office in April, had been fired by July for suggesting live rounds be used against Black Lives Matter protestors.

There were, of course, some serious flaws in Cummings’ logic. As FDA (the senior civil servants’ union) General Secretary Dave Penman wrote in PoliticsHome at the time, “Tired old rhetoric of ‘civil servants being promoted to a level of incompetence’ is not only insulting, but demonstrates a lack of understanding of the modern realities of the civil service.” All jobs are advertised externally, he explained, with many of the issues, such as job churn due to stagnating wages, being of the government’s own making.

But no matter. With no-one to explain himself to other than an adoring Boris Johnson it was on with the Dominic Cummings show. And, as he demonstrated with his Barnard Castle eye test, Cummings wasn’t about to let something like a global pandemic slow him down. A sign of things to come? On 24 May, after Johnson issued a statement in defence of Cummings lockdown breaking trip to Durham, the official UK Civil Service account tweeted, “Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?”

Accordingly by February the war on the civil service had its first casualties in the form of Philip Rutnam and Simon McDonald. Rutnam, former Permanent Secretary for the Home Office, quit after what he called a “vicious and orchestrated” campaign against him by Priti Patel and immediately set about suing the government for constructive dismissal. McDonald, meanwhile, will lose his role at the Foreign Office after its controversial merger with the Department for International Development in September.

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