Priti Patel is far from the first minister to fall out with a Whitehall mandarin | Chris Mullin | Opinion

Priti Patel, who is reportedly giving her top civil servant the “silent treatment”, is by no means the first cabinet minister to fall out with her permanent secretary. The breakdown in relations between my old friend Tony Benn, when he was secretary of state for industry, and his permanent secretary, Sir Antony Part, is a legend across Whitehall and beyond.

To take but one example, recorded in Benn’s diary for 11 April 1974: “Sir Antony Part came to see me. He hummed and hawed a bit and then said, ‘Minister, do you really intend to go ahead with your National Enterprise Board, public ownership and planning agreements?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘Are you serious?’ he asked.”

From that moment the die was cast. Part, according to Benn, would ring around fellow permanent secretaries urging them to brief their ministers against him so that when an issue came up in cabinet Benn found himself outnumbered. Eventually Benn was reshuffled to the Department of Energy, which he rapidly concluded was in the pocket of the nuclear industry and he again found himself facing civil servant-led obstruction over everything, from the UK’s choice of nuclear reactor to the funding of research into wave energy.

But it wasn’t just Benn. During the financial crisis of 1976, several Labour ministers felt they were being railroaded by the Treasury into applying for an IMF loan that, in turn, led to drastic austerity measures and the winter of discontent, which brought down the 1974-79 Labour government and ushered in the Thatcher decade. Years later Denis Healey, who as chancellor had strongly backed the IMF loan, wrote in his memoirs, “If I had been given accurate forecasts in 1976, I would never have needed to go to the IMF at all.”

During the 00s I was a minister in three departments – Environment, Transport and the Regions; International Development; and the Foreign Office. On the whole I enjoyed excellent relations with officials, several of whom I remain friendly with to this day. The only occasion on which I experienced official obstruction related to the aviation lobby, a mighty vested interest with tentacles that extend deep into government. I allege no impropriety, but I was surprised to discover that so seamless was the relationship, some aviation lobbyists had passes to the transport ministry enabling them to come and go at will.

Tony Benn during a press conference in 1971

‘The breakdown in relations between my old friend Tony Benn when he was secretary of state for industry and his permanent secretary, Sir Antony Part, is a legend across Whitehall and beyond.’ Benn during a press conference in 1971. Photograph: Les Lee/Getty Images

One persistent irritant was night flights over London, which were a source of complaints from MPs in the constituencies affected. My attempt to set up a meeting between representatives of the airlines and the MPs concerned was obstructed from the outset. I was advised that the airlines wouldn’t even bother to turn up if one so lowly as I were to raise the subject. What I suspected was that officials were advising the airlines that this was only a junior minister who could safely be ignored.

No matter. I solved the problem by getting my immediate superior to issue the invitation. Sure enough the airline representatives duly trooped in, calmly asserting that nothing could be done about anything. They gave a long list of excuses, the most ludicrous of which was wind speeds over China. The best way to engage their attention, I concluded, was to make the go ahead for a fifth terminal at Heathrow – something they were very keen on – conditional on an end to night flights. Officials left me in no doubt they were opposed to the idea. “My job,” a senior official told me, “is to get through the fifth terminal as smoothly and with as few conditions as possible.”

Undaunted, I duly set up a meeting with the secretary of state to discuss the matter. Shortly before it was due, I was advised that officials had cancelled the meeting on legal advice. The advice was later overturned, but before another meeting could be arranged I was reshuffled. The night flights continue unabated.

In fairness, it should be said that I was well down the pecking order and officials no doubt felt they were upholding government policy as determined by my many superiors. The consensus among former colleagues who have held high office is that if a minister has a clear idea of what he or she wishes to achieve and, providing they have the support of their superiors, civil servants will do their best to deliver. It would no doubt help, too, if ministers were not reshuffled at such regular intervals.

As for Patel, I suspect her problem – aside from allegations of abuse – is that she is simply not up to the job. Not long after she was made home secretary I received an email from a former permanent secretary of my acquaintance who remarked, “I don’t think I have ever seen a secretary of state so completely out of her depths – and so quickly.”

Chris Mullin was Labour MP for Sunderland South between 1987 and 2010

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