The chaos of unruled juvenility in the heart of government has been known about for many years, and it took this lockdown car-crash to expose what should have been a scandal long before.
Whether events took place during the lockdown or not is irrelevant – that is just a hook to hang confected moral outrage on – what matters is that the behaviour described should be scandalous whenever it happened, and that it went by with impunity. That culture of impunity must be dealt with, with zealous severity.
Boris is not the one to do it. He has allowed himself to become the root of the problem, because he is the smiling, hands-off boss who avoids confrontation and can never be cross with anyone for long. He is though aware of a literary precedent for sending in a strict regent to do the job which must be done.
The appearance, from Sue Grey’s frank, excoriating report, is of staff out of control. The private sector could not work like that – if I were to get drunk in the office or assault a co-worker and swear at support staff, I would be out on my ear with little prospect of a replacement job on the horizon – in Number 10 it appears that SPADs and junior civil servants have been enjoying the liberty of impunity, which confusion of responsibility brings.
It would be bad enough in a normal office where it all happens only on a personal level. In an office which wields the powers of peace and war, which reshapes vital structures of government and controls 40% of the nation’s GDP, this behaviour goes beyond internal discipline and becomes a vital public interest.
How it happens we can guess. The Downing Street machine contains ministers, civil servants and special advisers, and who controls whom is where the issues begin. Each group has its own chains of command, and if those chains are not pulled tight, they will run out of control. The staff whoever they may be are people, after all. The civil servants cannot command the SPADs and the SPADs cannot command the civil servants outside their specific responsibilities – they have separate priorities, separate duties and codes of conduct, and no way for misconduct to be pulled up tight if the relevant chief is out of the room. This should have been foreseen when Tony Blair introduced the concept of political special advisers.
For the special advisers, if criticised by senior staff they can always thumb their noses and say their boss is the Prime Minister, and this particular the Prime Minister is a hands-off boss whose very manner encourages the taking of liberties.
Boris Johnson is reluctant and now unable to control the staff. Now let him turn to a play. The Bard places Duke Vincentio of Vienna in the same position. He saw himself as the problem, as under his liberal rule the laws had become laxly observed:
We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.
Vincentio therefore left the city in the hands of Lord Angelo, “A man of stricture and firm abstinence”, with the command to restore respect for the laws of morality, which Angelo did with zeal until his own bodily temptations drew him. Boris is Vincentio who has let his people get away with excessive liberties. He needs an Angelo, preferably one less corruptible, to take command and apply excessive zeal to restoring the government machine. Like Angelo, he must receive absolute authority, and like Vincentio, Boris must withdraw to a distance so that his staff will not queue up to appeal to his mercy over the heads of grim Angelo.
The task then for Angelo is to take command and fundamentally, not to be Boris. Measures he or she can take to bring order should start:
- A command across all of government: no alcohol may be consumed nor provided for consumption in any government office even after hours in any context, even high-level receptions (those at the top must set an example);
- Senior civil servants in each ministry and in Number 10 to be given specific authority to rebuke and discipline special advisers in their ministry for breaches of the advisers’ code or for illegal conduct, and vice versa.
- Whistleblower protection, along the lines of that introduced by Stephen Harper in Canada – no civil servant or special adviser should be afraid to report wrongdoing to his or her supervisor and if necessary to a Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. This must apply just as much to devolved administrations and local authorities as to Whitehall and its quangos.
- Omerta: Blabbing is damaging to the smooth working of government. Misconduct should be stamped on but privately: both civil servants and SPADs work in a confidential atmosphere and must not leak. The current crop of chatty rats sap our confidence in the integrity of the process and make it look as if Whitehall cannot be trusted with the privacy of our personal information, if they are blabbers. Anyone can be self-righteous about openness, but private discipline is the most effective, and effectiveness is what is needed. A minister can give a good kicking to a wayward underling in private that he would not do in public. Working with a good, statutory whistle-blower protection, it will clear out the system like nothing else.
The Thick of It is not meant to be a training film. That culture must be ended, without mercy.