‘The relationship between my civil servants and me is summed up by trust and understanding. I don’t trust them and they don’t understand me,’ one Secretary of State likes to joke. The quip sums up the current, tense mood in Whitehall.
Today’s Times has done a superb job chronicling just how bad things have got. Many ministers and special advisers feel that they are being made to do huge amounts of work to compensate for the failings og the civil service and being made to carry the can when the permanent bureaucracy messes something up. But before this is dismissed as just griping from ministers who are struggling with mid-term, it is worth noting Tony Blair’s trenchant criticisms of the civil service. He says that it has ‘inherent dysfunctionality’ and that he tells other countries to avoid setting up a Whitehall-style system.
But, I understand that civil servants are pointing journalists to a heads of news meeting held by Craig Oliver last week. It is claimed — and hotly denied, it should be noted — that at this meeting Oliver, the PM’s director of communications, criticised departmental special advisers, saying they left Number 10 to carry the government. Number 10 say that this version of the meeting is simply not accurate and that he was simply encouraging the heads of news to do more on digital and saying that if special advisers objected, he’d happily talk to them. That this meeting is being leaked, though, shows just how bad relations in Whitehall are right now.