One of the most striking aspects of turbulent times in British politics is the determination with which Boris Johnson’s administration appears to actively court conflict at the heart of government and beyond. In the wake of Sir Philip Rutnam’s unprecedented resignation statement on Saturday morning, in which the former permanent secretary to the Home Office condemned a pattern of bullying and intimidation in Whitehall, one senior ex-civil servant described the Tory leadership as modern-day Jacobins. “They used to want to preserve our great institutions,” tweeted Nick Macpherson. “They are now hell-bent on destroying them.”
The civil service has been a prime target. Sir Philip’s decision to resign after 33 years’ service came after what he described as a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him. This was sanctioned, he believes, by his boss, the home secretary, Priti Patel, with whom he had arguments about personnel and Ms Patel’s management style. Sir Philip is now taking legal action against the government on the grounds of constructive dismissal. His statement accused Ms Patel of bullying other Home Office officials by “shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands”.
Ms Patel has a reputation for being a difficult minister to work with and now faces pressure to answer these serious allegations in parliament. But the notion that this episode was purely the result of a personality clash which got out of hand is implausible. In the most senior echelons of the government, there is a palpable desire to target and remove perceived backsliders from key positions, as the country heads towards a form of departure from the EU that could bring severe economic disruption. Last month it was anonymously briefed that Downing Street was keen to replace “a few permanent secretaries”, including , whose names could be found on a secret “shitlist”. When pressure was exerted on the former chancellor, Sajid Javid, he chose to resign rather than replace his team of Treasury aides with Downing Street appointees.
For this government, acquired experience and expertise counts for far less than ideology. The Treasury and the Home Office are seen by the prime minister and his chief aides as critical to the remaking of post-Brexit Britain: Rishi Sunak, Mr Javid’s successor, will be expected to find a way to boost public spending in the “red wall” seats of the north and Midlands, as post-Brexit headwinds almost certainly lead to a fall in GDP growth. This was a task for which Mr Javid’s team, wedded to the fiscal rules he wrote into the Conservatives’ election manifesto, was deemed insufficiently enthusiastic. The Home Office will be responsible for ending freedom of movement and implementing the government’s new immigration policy from next January. The new regime will supposedly end unskilled migration and could potentially lead to acute labour shortages. The whole Brexit process has been described by one Tory MP as “walking through a minefield with a blindfold on”. Clearly, only true believers are required for the journey.
Sir Philip’s departure is another indication that Britain is currently governed not so much by a political party as by an insurgent movement within a party – one which intends to take enormous risks. Its leading figures are determined, through studied recklessness, to disrupt, demoralise and goad representatives of the ancien regime. But as Mr Johnson licenses the revolutionary zeal embodied by Dominic Cummings, his chief aide, he would do well to pay more attention to basic issues of good governance. The prime minister has already come in for justified criticism over his failure to visit flood-affected areas, as the February rains inflicted devastation across the land. Impending fatherhood was not a good enough excuse for that dereliction of duty. This weekend it emerged that, scandalously, a scheduled meeting on the coronavirus crisis between Ms Patel and Sir Philip did not take place, as their standoff escalated. The evidence accumulates that this government’s penchant for a sectarian, bullying form of conviction politics is creating a dysfunctional administration. Mr Johnson will recall that, eventually, the architects of the Jacobin Terror lost their heads too.