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Why are civil servants so hostile to Brexit?

3 July 2019

3:03 PM

3 July 2019

3:03 PM

The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, is offering to meet Jeremy Corbyn about the Times story last week which reported that senior civil servants were worried Mr Corbyn was ‘too frail and is losing his memory’.

As usual with such stories, one cannot know their exact truth, but there is a general trend in the civil service to be looser-tongued. A recent column by Rachel Sylvester, also in the Times, contained a long string of insults of Boris Johnson from unnamed officials. Sir Mark did not offer to meet Mr Johnson about that. Before and after the Brexit referendum, government officials, especially at the Treasury, repeatedly briefed views hostile to Brexit.

A Remainer, Olly Robbins, took charge of the Brexit negotiations. Recently, in a row about leaking, Sir Mark is said to have insisted on the sacking of the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, and indicated that he would not work for a government which contained him.

I do feel sorry for civil servants because, from the era of Tony Blair onwards, a bad habit has grown up of ministers blaming them in public. Nevertheless, mandarins can no longer be fully defended by the claim that ‘They can’t answer back.’ They can, and they often do. Quite wrongly in a system in which ministers are supposed to be responsible for policy, senior officials often appear before parliamentary select committees expressing a departmental view which may differ from that of their minister or give their own opinions in public at the Institute for Government.

One reason, I suspect, why they are so hostile to Brexit is that they have gradually introduced a more continental system in which the bureaucrat is allowed political leanings and runs everything pretty much regardless of those whom the people have actually elected. If we ever get Brexit, it should be a great benefit that the civil servants become more restrained and ministers cease to slough off responsibility on to them.

Charles Moore’s Spectator Notes appears in this week’s issue, out tomorrow


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