'Demoralising' anonymous criticism of civil servants 'risen in last few years' warns Civil Service chief

27 July 2020, 18:07

Prime Minister Boris Johnson shaking hands with Sir Mark Sedwill
Prime Minister Boris Johnson shaking hands with Sir Mark Sedwill. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The UK's most senior civil servant has said "demoralising" anonymous criticism of officials has "risen in the last few years" as a string of top officials have stood down.

Sir Mark Sedwill also predicted that the greatest challenge for his successor will be helping deliver the "incredibly ambitious agenda" set by the Prime Minister.

The top civil servant is quitting as Cabinet Secretary after reports of clashes with Boris Johnson's chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

His departure, and replacement as national security adviser by Mr Johnson's chief EU negotiator David Frost, was announced last month.

It was the highest profile exit in a series that included former Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnum, who accused Home Secretary Priti Patel of a "vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign" against him.

Sir Mark, in the speech at Oxford University's Blavatnik School of Government, said anonymous briefings are "damaging" to the process of governance because officials need the support of their leaders.

"So any kind of anonymous briefings and sniping is demoralising for people," he said.

"It's not completely unique but it has definitely risen in the last few years."

But he said Mr Johnson, his predecessor Theresa May and other politicians are "four-square in their support" for the Civil Service when speaking on the record.

"And so having that political leadership offsetting some of the sniping that goes on, I think, is really important," Sir Mark continued.

"There's nothing more destabilising for a senior Cabinet minister to read a whole load of stuff in one of the newspapers about whether or not the skids are under them because of something that's happened."

But Sir Mark said the string of departures should not necessarily be linked with anonymous briefings.

He said: "I don't think you should read into the fact that several of us are leaving within the first year of a new parliament, I don't think you should read too much of a connection between the two."

Sir Mark's successor is yet to be named, but he gave an insight over the stresses his replacement will face.

"I think by far the biggest challenge is that incredibly ambitious agenda that the Government has set... and ensuring that the Civil Service machine is able to provide the support to ministers and the Government that they will need as they navigate the country through those things," he said.

Giving his advice for better governance, Sir Mark said the Cabinet is "too large" and therefore "a cumbersome forum" for debate, which he said mainly took place in subcommittees.

He said talks in the Brexit subcommittee can see "really feisty political debate" and discussed Mrs May's difficulties in gaining the support of her senior ministers over the EU departure.

"During that period, her management of the Cabinet was a central preoccupation of her premiership," Sir Mark said.

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