British government: the Fumbling Temeraire

Tory ministers and the Fighting Temeraire painting

Having reassembled its ‘Star Chamber’ of legal eagles at the turn of the year – probably at the public’s great expense – the European Research Group (ERG) finally decided to call it a day. Just after lunch on 29 December 2020, its chair, Mark Francois MP, granted assent to the prime minister’s Brexit deal. With that, 30-odd years of Tory squabbling over Europe came to an official close – triggering a frantic search by backbenchers for something new to fight about. Now in Downing Street, fishy new sovereignty or none, the sun is about to set on the PM’s flagship policy as it drifts toward the breaker’s yard. Mr Johnson must convince party colleagues that there’s a point to his administration beyond Brexit. There isn’t, so it’s a tough sell even for him. What else has he got to offer them? Besides the six impossible things he believes before breakfast, an airy constitution leaves little room for intention, let alone conviction – this is an opportunist-hack turned opportunist-politician; the odd contrarian flourish notwithstanding, he has always bobbed along with prevailing winds and currents. Two months of fumbling for something that resembles policy direction and his ‘team’ are already leafing back through the Dominic Cummings Playbook. It’s a quick read. Brexit is done, so that leaves civil service reform. It’s controversial, it’s costly to the public purse, it’s entirely superficial – in short: a fool’s errand. Perfect then.

Cummings once promised a ‘hard rain’ over Whitehall, flooding its offices with grateful young technocrats – engulfing an entire layer of entitled Oxbridge administrators. But as the substance of reform is worth less to this government than the satisfying ring to it, Number 10 will venture to achieve as little as possible for as long as possible and to look busy doing it. Ironically, that’s what much of the civil service is for. As head of the Cabinet Office, it’s left to the poisonous gnome Michael Gove to assure everyone that reform is going to happen – then that it’s happening; then that it’s happened. In his rather less radical reading of the Cummings Manifesto, civil servants are to go to the people and, once there, reconnect with the public they serve – so watch your back. In impractical terms, that means packing off the dispensable parts of the Treasury, business and trade departments to Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester, Leeds. Twenty-two thousand civil servants relocating in all, we’re told. Just getting them there is expected to take ten years at a cost of about £1 billion, presumably because the Ministry of Transport intends sending them by HS2.

According to Gove’s scheme, those left in Whitehall will also have opportunities to get out of London. The perpetual Cabinet Office leak may have ruined the surprise, but top civil servants can look forward to enrolment at Sandhurst Military Academy – there they will complete intensive short-courses in practical and leadership skills. The news may raise a few eyebrows, but ministers are quietly confident having previously trialled the bootcamp model at the Home Office. Rumours that Priti Patel will oversee drill in person are unfounded, but she has confirmed the lily livers in her department don’t like it up ‘em. Still, if formal training for government ministers sounds a bit French to you, fear not: the man tasked by Gove with the actual practicalities is Lord Agnew of Oulton. Lord Agnew isn’t in the least bit French, indeed he realises the problem with English civil servants is that they’re similarly ‘urban metropolitan thinkers’. Since removing all of Whitehall from the urban metropole is not a practicable option, Agnew aims to remove all of the thinking instead – and what better place for that than a British Army institution? Of course, the army’s well accustomed to government schemes for administrative reform as it’s been resisting them since the Crimean War.

Yet Johnson must know tilting at Whitehall windmills won’t lull even the thickest of his restless backbenchers. For the last ten years, Tory governments have had to put up with the ERG, that band of hard-line Brexit mongers dubbed Spartans in the English papers (a striking misnomer seeing as Sparta was the one Greek city not to build a wall around itself). Now, just as Francois, Rees-Mogg & Co are shutting up shop, their historic mission played out, their Helots constituents contented, along come a new assortment of cranks and reactionaries to take their place: the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), the Northern Research Group (NRG) and, of course, the Common Sense Group (CSG). To summarise, the CRG want to open the country up, the NRG want to level it up, whilst the CSG just want to spice it up with an all-out, alt-right culture war. Each boasts a membership of 50-70 MPs – with plenty of overlap – plus some subscribers in the House of Lords. That’s enough rebel MPs to seriously damage the government’s working majority of 87. This was clear at the vote on tiered restrictions in December, and the votes on extending Universal Credit top-ups and the proposed amendments to the Trade Bill in January. They already have the numbers needed (55) to trigger a party leadership contest. Steve Baker MP – deputy chair of the CRG and member of every ginger group going – recently warned Johnson his leadership may be on the table. Baker is the man credited with bringing down Theresa May, so Johnson may have to cut back on his afternoon naps. As John Major might say: better watch out for the bastards.

Patrick Casey