In recent weeks, a former head of the civil service has been quoted almost incessantly in the pages of the British press. Lord Kerslake today warned the government over its supposed plans for Whitehall reform. Last week, he criticised the ‘serious and extraordinary’ leak of personal New Year’s Honours list data. Before that, the same Lord Kerslake called on the government to end the Brexit no-deal uncertainty by looking at the possibility of a second referendum.
Readers might be forgiven for treating the pronouncements of a former head of the civil service as somehow above politics. After all, the civil service code calls on Whitehall mandarins to adhere to strict rules of impartiality. It is not, one might reasonably think, within a public official’s brief to openly extol a political point of view, even if the mandarin in question has since departed that particular role. Such a presumption seems even more well-founded in Kerslake’s case given that he was handed his peerage for services to public administration. When he originally entered the House of Lords in 2015, Kerslake rightly chose to sit as a crossbench peer, eschewing overt political allegiances in the manner one might expect of a former civil service chief.
So it may be helpful for readers (and frankly some journalists) to point out that far from upholding the near-sacred civil service commitment to impartiality, Kerslake is, in fact, a party hack. In October last year, he was criticised by Baroness D’Souza, a former Lord Speaker herself, for his relationship with the Labour party. She reminded Kerslake that crossbenchers are supposed to ‘remain politically unaffiliated’, adding that he appeared to be a ‘committed’ Labour supporter.
Indeed, Kerslake has been advising the Labour leadership for a number of years, even revealing key elements of Labour’s strategy had the 2019 general election ended with a hung parliament. So it is not out of the question to suppose that Kerslake would have found himself working for Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn had Labour come to power.
On reflection then, his issues with Dominic Cummings’ plans for Whitehall reform might not be based on an old civil servant’s evenhandedness but instead on the fact that he and John McDonnell had themselves plotted their own scheme for a civil service overhaul. Mr S recommends that journalists take Kerslake’s views with a heavy pinch of salt…