T he low-level warfare between ministers and civil servants since Boris Johnson’s administration took office has gone nuclear. Sir Philip Rutnam has refused blandishments, and cash, and taken a stand against what he sees as an external campaign of denigration by the home secretary, Priti Patel , and her allies and an internal track record of unacceptable treatment of his staff.
It is hardly unprecedented for the top relationship in a department to break down. Usually both sides decide it’s better to go quietly – with a peerage, a job at a quango, or a package. From Rutnam’s statement it is clear that is what the Cabinet Office tried to do this time round. But he clearly thought that someone needed to stand up for the civil servants he led as permanent secretary at the Home Office , and civil service values more generally – and retreating gracefully would not do that.
There is a distinct possibility that Rutnam decides to have his day in court and expose what really went on inside the department. There will be huge questions for the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill – from ministers about why he failed to defuse this; and from civil servants about whether he was too ready to sweep the accusations under a carpet. The cabinet secretary is also head of the home civil service and it will look to him for leadership – “keep calm and carry on” missives like the one he issued last week won’t cut it.
Expect, too, more focus on the performance of Home Office civil servants. The department has a record of strained ministerial / official relations. It was deemed to have let down the former home secretary Amber Rudd when she resigned over misleading parliament. Some officials were moved on, but Rutnam stayed. The Williams report on Windrush is overdue. It will be surprising if top Home Office officials – both Rutnam and his predecessor (who happens to be the cabinet secretary) – escape without blame.
And who replaces Rutnam? It’s hard to imagine anyone but the most promotion-hungry civil servant wanting to take on this poisoned chalice. Will ministers try to bring in a more palatable outsider – and will the civil service resist?
Jill Rutter is senior research fellow at UK in a Changing Europe and a former civil servant
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