Skip to Content

Coffee House Steerpike

Former civil servant claims civil service ‘impartial’ on Brexit – says problem is… Brexit

4 February 2018

12:11 PM

4 February 2018

12:11 PM

Oh dear. After a week in which senior Brexiteers accused the civil service of trying to frustrate Britain’s exit from the EU, the Sunday papers have seen the first signs of fight back. In the Observer, Andrew Turnbull, who led the civil service under Tony Blair, claims the Brexit bunch are using tactics similar to those of rightwing German nationalists between the two world wars.

Now Gus O’Donnell has appeared on Peston on Sunday to dismiss accusations that the civil service is trying to thwart Brexit. Defending the ‘honesty, objectivity integrity and impartiality’ of the civil service, the former Cabinet Secretary said the problem wasn’t with his side but with… Brexit:

‘Now of course, if you’re selling snake oil, you don’t like the idea of experts and testing your product. And I think that’s what we’ve got.’

Steerpike suspects describing Brexiteers as snake oil salesmen doesn’t do much to advance the argument that civil servants are neutral on the topic.

And one other thing. He told Peston that civil servants look at the evidence, and go where it leads. But in the April 2016 Brexit dossier, they had been given two scenarios: “shock”, and “extreme shock”. They did not look at the evidence and see where it lead – they were told where to go by politicians, and their boss – Jeremy Heywood – allowed this. A violation of civil service impartiality.

Civil servants are supposed to say: “if you want to do x, minister here’s what we think will happen – and here are the likely figures.” But in this case, the minister was saying “If voters do x, let’s pretend the result will be y. Can you kindly continue my extrapolation?”. Hence the rapidly-disproven forecasts of 500,000 job losses after the Brexit vote, let alone Brexit itself.

So HM Treasury report was a piece of spin, not analysis. It was not a forecast, yet it was dressed up to look like one. The aim, from the off, was to deceive. It should never have been published by the Treasury and Heywood never have allowed his civil servants to be misused in this way. If Lord O’Donnell genuinely cares about civil service impartiality, perhaps he’ll make that point one day.

Show comments