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Coffee House Steerpike

A field guide to Whitehall’s mandarins 

26 August 2019

11:10 AM

26 August 2019

11:10 AM

Britain’s civil service is supposed to be the envy of the world, seamlessly executing the will of whichever government happens to occupy the offices of state. But Mr S wonders whether the reality can be rather different. Disgruntled civil servants have toppled more than one over-mighty minister. Others have admitted actively trying to undermine government policy when it comes to Brexit.

Much like different nations, Whitehall’s various departments – and the people who inhabit them – have their own eccentricities and foibles. So to help readers out, Mr S has put together a guide for the avid Whitehall twitcher, making it easy to spot the difference between the lesser-crested FCO adviser from the bold-headed DFID PermSec:

Treasury: Economics graduate, preferably Oxbridge. Considered a job with one of the Big Four but found the proximity to power more alluring. Fully aware that a brief stint at the Treasury doesn’t look too bad on the CV. In a cruel twist of fortune, no-deal planning is now taking up most of their time. A subtle hint of superiority, conscious of the fact that all other departments rely on Her Majesty’s money men. Invariably wears intellectual-esque specs. Paper of choice: Financial Times.

Department for International Development: Probably considered themselves a bit of a hippy back at university. Read anthropology or some other wishy-washy humanities degree; dabbled in Foucault. Now doing God’s work but planning a move to the third sector, preferably an international NGO. Religiously carries around a reusable coffee cup. Paper of choice: the Guardian.

Department for Exiting the European Union: DExEU was supposed to be the Civil Service’s equivalent of a sexy start-up, cannibalising all the most interesting parts of other government departments to supercharge the nation for a potential no deal. Its creation is now widely seen as an error across most of Whitehall. All the high-level decision making has been taken over by the Daily Operations Committee, an organisation whose nickname, XO, is perhaps even cooler than DExEU. Newspaper of choice: Daily Express (only joking).

David Davis’ time at the top at DexEU was far from memorable

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: Tweed-clad Royal Ag College grads. Brimming with plans to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. They’ll know at least two people with a Land Rover Series I. Holidays in the Cotswolds or goes fly-fishing on the Spey. Magazine of choice: Farmers Weekly.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Studied international relations and/or languages at university. Has a biography of Bismarck at home. Angling for a cushy embassy job, preferably somewhere tropical and politically stable. Either that or a phone call from MI6. Magazine of choice: the Economist.

Department for International Trade: Stuffed full of ex-Treasury officials who jumped ship soon after Brexit hoping to enjoy the jet-setting trade envoy lifestyle. Needless to say, the Fiji trade deal wasn’t quite what they were hoping for. Newspaper of choice: using the Treasury’s old FT log-in.

Cabinet Office: None of their friends seem to understand that they essentially work in No. 10. The Civil Service’s civil servants AKA king of the wonks. Magazine of choice: Civil Service World.

Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport: Nobody entering this building wears a suit. Probably the highest share of brown suede out of all the government departments. While they might like friends to think they’re hanging out with TV stars, the reality is they’re tackling issues with the fibre-optic roll out in Penrith. Magazine of choice: Radio Times.

Ministry of Defence: The boys at the Treasury really don’t understand, do they? Many of those directing the defence of the realm have risen through the ranks and look down on the fast streamers and life-long office dwellers. The annual Tough Mudder can get quite competitive. Paper of choice: Daily Mail.


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