It’s said that when Iain Dale, overseeing last night’s Conservative hustings in Manchester, announced the news that Oliver Robbins, the senior civil servant in Theresa May’s Brexit team, was leaving his post and the Civil Service, many of the Tory audience cheered.
I’m told Iain Dale just read this tweet out at the Tory hustings and there was a huge cheer https://t.co/BxTjMXcdJt
— Tim Shipman (@ShippersUnbound) June 29, 2019
By doing so, they underlined several of the most striking, and troubling, elements of Britain’s Brexit drama.
First, the cowardice of politicians who seek to blame the civil service for failing to deliver impossible goals and for pointing out that some things are impossible. Olly Robbins has been traduced, and cannot – yet – even answer those who traduce him. He deserves better, not least from the Prime Minister whose strategy he attempted to implement. I’m sure Theresa May will remember him in her resignation honours list, but she should do rather more than that and recall that the Prime Minister is also Minister for the Civil Service, and make a public defence of officials who serve and who have no right of reply to weaselling politicians.
That defence of an independent civil service is all the more important given that both of our next likely prime ministers, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, might well have plans to exert themselves over officials.
Johnson’s friends mutter about ousting Sir Mark Sedwill as Cabinet Secretary. Corbyn’s allies will use yesterday’s Times story about officials gossiping about the Labour leader’s health — a story they surely know has political, not official origins — as an excuse to impose their own ideas on the civil service.
Someone needs to stand up for the idea of an independent, professional civil service, and Theresa May, not least because she owes these officials a great deal, should be that someone.
The second remarkable thing revealed by those Tory cheers is how far the Conservatives have moved in just a few short years. Once, Tories prided themselves as the defenders of British institutions, the people who would use sensible, incremental change to preserve the standing of those institutions. Now they just want to burn things down.
The BBC, the Judiciary, the Civil Service, the Union, even Parliament: none are safe from the cleansing flame of today’s Brexit-driven Conservative party.
If the struggle of our times is the battle over trust in the institutions of the British order (and the values they rely on and represent), the Conservatives have picked a side, and it’s not the conserving one.
Which is, of course, perfectly legitimate. The Tories are free to make the case for tearing things down and building new things on the rubble if they choose. But if so, perhaps they should make their intent a little more clear to the electorate. Should he become leader, Mr Johnson should consider changing his party’s name. The Revolutionary Brexit Party might be appropriate, or maybe something with a bit more poetry to it. Who’s up for following the Shining Path to Brexit?