Blame it on the Blob: How civil servants are bearing the brunt of Tory government failings

It seems Raab’s departure and his searing attack on the civil service, could be used by the Tories to rig the system by weeding out the liberals, demonise them for their own failings, and appoint ‘their own,’ as a means of driving policies forward to deliver on their own political objectives.

The Blob. A slimy, ruthless, carnivorous alien that crashed down to Earth onboard a meteorite in the 1958 film of the same name. Dominic Cummings, as Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, shouted loudly about ‘the Blob’ inhabiting Whitehall. He called for a revolution in the civil service and – mixing his literary metaphors – to end the ‘Kafka-esque influence of senior mandarins.’ Instead, Cummings wanted ‘weirdos and misfits’ to apply for jobs within No 10.

Though the nickname originated in America, it was picked up by the perennial Tory cabinet minister Michael Gove, who, as education minister, used the term to describe the apparent vested interests in the education sector.

In the wake of the humiliating Dominic Raab resignation, the jeering moniker has been doing the rounds once more, weaponised by the right and applied to the supposed perpetrators of the former deputy PM’s downfall.  

 “It’s a witch-hunt. The Civil Service Blob wanted to take out Dom Raab. They’ve been gunning for him for years. And now they’ve got their man,” one angry Tory MP told Daily Mail columnist Dan Hodges.

Naturally, Hodges agreed without any critical analysis or degree of impartiality, writing: ‘It’s true, Raab has been taken out through a carefully conducted co-ordinated plot instigated by his own department officials’.

Such claims are being made despite the five-month investigation into allegations of bullying, finding that the now former secretary of state for justice, who was also the deputy prime minister, guilty of “intimidating” and being “unreasonably and persistently aggressive” towards his officials. 

Rather than accepting the outcome of a report that was conducted by a respected independent employment lawyer, apologising to his victims, and leaving his post with some humility, in a lengthy, unrepentant rant in the Telegraph, Raab twisted the case to present himself as the target and those who had been in the firing line of his aggression as the ‘activist’ and ‘over-unionised’ perpetrators of a left-wing plot to sink him.

And his political and media allies have fallen hook line and sinker for the same incredulous narrative.  

It makes you suspicious that it was their intention all along, knowing that Raab’s exit was inevitable so why not secure some sort of win from the latest humiliating sleaze scandal to sweep through Tory ranks? After all, with the local elections just days away and the Tories on course to lose 1,000 seats, and Labour on track to make massive gains, desperate times call for desperate measures.

But in their short-sightedness, they seemed to have miscalculated the receptiveness of onlookers, as every political commentator worth their salt has recognised the whole sordid affair for what it is – a desperate and pathetic attempt to turn the tide on what was another shambolic screwup, this time, by the second highest minister in the land, and turn it into a fake culture war stoking assault on the civil service. As Guardian political correspondent Rowena Mason said: “It’s quite extraordinary how he sought to turn the situation to his own advantage. It happened really swifty, and it almost seemed to have the support of No 10.”

But sadly, Raab’s rejection of the 48-page report which concluded that he made “unfairly personal criticism” of individuals which had a “significant adverse impact on their health,” and the support he was given, are symbolic of the climate we are living in. When those who apologise for their mistakes are chided by a viciously unforgiving right-wing media – I’m thinking about the rancorous reaction to Diane Abbott’s apology for her recent mistake – while a confirmed workplace bully gets elevated to being the innocent victim of a ‘flawed’ inquiry and left-wing conspiracy that will damage the government for which the British people will pay the price, we are indeed living in ethically strange times.

Tory tradition of undermining the civil service

This week, former UK civil service chief Lord Karslake waded into the Raab resignation row, warning that Sunak needs to speak out against the ‘torrent of invective against the civil service.’

Lord Kerslake said the prime minister needed to publicly reject the narrative that complaints of bullying, are “all about snowflake millennials and a fifth column in the civil service, and the idea that the civil service are working to bring down ministers they don’t like.”

“In an ideal world, the prime minister would declare his support for the civil service and its values and what it does for government and recognise that what this is really about, which is a particular minister and his behaviour,” said Kerslake.

The comments were made the same week that more than 130,000 civil servants took to picket lines in a long-running dispute over pay, jobs and conditions. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), claimed ministers were “bullying” civil servants, and accused the government of waging an “ideological war” on its own workforce. 

“When you look at how badly ministers treat their own staff, it’s impossible not to think this is an ideological war on civil servants.

“The evidence stacks up – ministers bullying their staff, giving our members the worst pay rise in the country, refusing to give them a back-dated pay claim or lump sum like they’ve given everyone else, failing even to negotiate with us – so how else do you explain it?

“How else do you explain the incessant attacks by government ministers on their own workforce, if it’s not a point of principle?” said Serwotka
While the Raab-resignation-turned-assault-on-civil-service might be an example of deliberate culture war stoking by the right, it comes as no surprise, given that the Tories have a long history of undermining civil servants.

Thatcher’s ‘agencification’ of government

Margaret Thatcher famously began one meeting of civil servants and nationalised industries leaders by declaring that ‘if you were any good you’d be working in the private sector’. She tried to make government more like business through the ‘agencification’ of the government, described at the time by officials as ‘Perestroika in the civil service.’ Authors of a paper for the London School of Economics (LSE) talk about how Thatcher had sought to make the government more business-like. As well as cost-cutting, cabinet ministers and senior civil servants were expected to redirect their efforts away from strategies directed at social change and policymaking.  

Papers released at the National Archives disclosed that Thatcher’s government had even drew up a secret blacklist of its own civil servants thought to be ‘subversives’ in an attempt to keep them under observation and block their promotion. Reports say that Whitehall departments had worked closely with M15 to identify 1,420 civil servants to be carefully monitored and, where possible, kept away from computers and revenue collection roles.

Fast-forward several decades and the seeming Tory tradition of attempting to mould the civil service to suit their agenda looks as alive as ever. But instead of so-called Trotskyists and communists, it’s the ‘woke snowflakes’ in the firing line.

During Boris Johnson’s tenure at Downing Street, civil servants faced a barrage of attacks from his allies and aides. As mentioned earlier, Dominic Cummings made no secret of his disdain of civil servants. On entering Downing Street, he said he wanted a new breed of civil servant to shake up with way Britain is run.

In May 2022, it was announced that almost one in five civil servants were set to lose their job. It was understood that Johnson had given his cabinet the task of cutting staff by a fifth, saying every bit of cash saved on government spending could be better used elsewhere. The policy was said to be more than just a cost-cutting exercise, and that it fitted with the ‘Johnson government’s ideological suspicion that the public sector is stuffed with pettifogging Remainers,’ as Heather Stewart had described it.

No doubt adding to Tories’ exasperation with the civil service, Simon McDonald, who was the top mandarin at the Foreign Office at the time, played a ‘seismic’ role in bringing down Boris Johnson. McDonald went public with a claim that Johnson’s Downing Street was lying to cover up how much the PM knew about allegations of sexual assault against Chris Pincher, a minister he appointed. 

“No. 10 keep changing their story and are still not telling the truth,” McDonald wrote on Twitter. Johnson knew all about Pincher’s record and gave him a job anyway, he said. 

48 hours after the explosive claim, Boris Johnson resigned as PM.

Then there is the unabashed antagonism towards civil servants by Jacob Rees-Mogg. In August 2022, the then minister for government efficiency – which sounds like the kind of office the late lamented Jim Hacker of ‘Yes Minister’ fame might have held – launched an attack on the ‘hopeless’ and ‘rotten culture’ of civil servants doing their work from home.

The Old Etonian, whose £5m mansion is just a five-minute walk from Parliament, complained too few commuters were at their Whitehall desks adding: “Even accounting for summer holidays, this is hopeless.”

The MP for North East Somerset became the butt of ridicule online for posting a photo of empty desks within his own department. But the photo, now deleted, was actually of the Cabinet Office. He was branded “a bully” and “patronising” after leaving notes on empty desks in an apparent attack on civil servants working from home after restrictions were lifted.

More recently still, the home secretary was accused of a ‘cowardly attack’ on civil servants after an email to Tory supporters blamed them for blocking the government for halting small boat crossings. The email said an “activist Blob of left-wing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour Party” prevented the government from stopping migrants coming to the UK on small boats.

Dave Penman, head of the FDA civil servants’ union, accused Suella Braverman of a “clear breach of the ministerial code” and called on Sunak to withdraw the statement and get the home secretary to apologise to all civil servants.

As far as we know, neither request was carried out.

Under the supposedly more sensible leadership of Rishi Sunak, who promised to bring ‘integrity’ to No 10, the same ‘lazy civil servant’ rhetoric is still being bandied about by Tory forces.

Stephen Bush, columnist and associate editor of the FT, says: “The narrative being spun by Raab and his allies is that his problem was caring too much: a lazy civil service found his commitment and his high standards too much to live with.”

Bush continues that narrative of ‘Dominic Raab, Brexiteer committed to high standards brought down by a Remainer civil service that wanted to skive off’, clashes with the reality of the former justice secretary’s ministerial record.’

Raab’s dubious ministerial record

And it’s difficult to ignore, the  series of embarrassments that defined Raab’s tenure in a number of the highest appointments in office. As justice secretary, he refused to negotiate with barristers over a long-running dispute about pay. He defended Boris Johnson for breaking the law, and in 2021, when Foreign Secretary, and faced calls to resign for being holiday and shirking responsibility during the fall of Kabul. Despite being responsible for giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, he admitted to not having read the Good Friday Agreement, as Brexit secretary. Then there was the infamous ‘Angela Rayner wink’, which led to a flurry of accusations of misogyny against Raab.

I’ll stop there, but you get the picture.

Of course, Raab is not the first minister in Rishi Sunak’s cabinet to quit over bullying allegations. Gavin Williamson stood down after allegedly telling a civil servant to “slit your throat” and sending sweary texts to the ex-chief whip. 

Following the latest resignation of one of his top team, Sunak has been accused of being ‘weak’ and branded “utterly incapable” of turning the page on Tory sleaze. The turmoil has cast doubt on the PM’s promise to restore “integrity, professionalism and accountability,” after the chaotic governments of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. “Rather than showing leadership, he has proved himself too weak to give his deputy his marching orders,” said the Labour deputy Angela Rayner. 

Amid yet more Conservative Party chaos, a controversial plan to politicise the civil service is reportedly underway. Francis Maude, the Tory peer and former Cabinet Office minister who is advising the government on civil service reform, says that in order for ministers to get the best advice possible, we need “to be more robust and less mealy mouthed about ‘politicisation.’”

It seems Raab’s departure and his searing attack on the civil service, could be used by the Tories to rig the system by weeding out the liberals, demonise them for their own failings, and appoint ‘their own,’ as a means of driving policies forward to deliver on their own political objectives.

After all, with a list of Tory MPs stepping down as the party fears election wipe-out under Rishi Sunak, what have they got to lose?

Right-Wing Media Watch – Tory press loses plot over Raab resignation

Staying on the topic of Raab, when a high-profile Tory minister falls, you never quite know which direction their supporters in the media may go. When, for example, the devastation of the mini-budget became clear, the likes of the Daily Mail and the Sun, which were once Truss loyalists, heralding her ‘true blue’ policies and celebrating her arrival at No 10, abruptly turned against her.

With his popularity falling to -57 amid the bullying inquiry, as shown by a YouGov survey in February, you could have hedge a bet that the Tory press may have said ‘good riddance’ to Raab. But no, they seized the opportunity to present him as the victim and turn the story into a strike against the Left.

The real aggressors are coming from the ‘anti-Raab revolt,’ Brendan O’Neill eccentrically described in The Spectator.  The ‘anti-Raab revolt smacks far more of bullying to me,’ wrote O’Neill, before provocatively asking if civil servants are ‘clubbing together to drum an exacting minister out of his job?’

The Express was even more sympathetic, claiming Raab had been ‘forced out for wanting best for Britain.’ While the Daily Mail went for the more dramatic, asking: “Was this the day Britain became ungovernable,’ in reference, I assume, to Raab’s insistence that ‘flimsy complaints’ like the ones that led to his demise, make it ‘almost impossible for ministers to ‘deliver for the British people.’ 

Meanwhile, our old friend Dan Hannan – aka ‘the man who brought you Brexit‘ – got his knickers in a twist about officials targeting ministers who voted Leave. Why do these Brexiters always claim to be victims of some conspiracy? It’s getting very boring. 

But the most unrestrained response came from Daniel Johnson, former journalist for the Telegraph and the Times. In a column for the Mail, Johnson speaks of the ‘felling of Dominic Raab by a lynch mob composed of malicious mandarins and mendacious sections of the media.’

“It is chilling proof that we are living in an atmosphere of hysteria directed against the Conservatives such as has not been seen since the Left’s gleeful, grave-dancing reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s death in 2013,” he wrote.

Adopting the same anti-civil service narrative of Raab and Francis Maude, Johnson continued that with a “ministry full of Labour-supporting civil servants, the former Justice Secretary found himself targeted, isolated and undermined, with even his private secretaries replaced on the orders of senior bureaucrats.”

I won’t sicken you with any more extracts from the vicious piece but rather point to its many flaws. Firstly, the author fails to even mention the bullying investigation which found Raab guilty of intimidation. Secondly, the column drags up the resignation of Matt Hancock, which, according to the author, was “weaponised by an alliance between the Blob and the Left to revive the old accusation of ‘Tory sleaze’ which had proved so successful in undermining the Major Government in the 1990s,” – sorry, I said no more extracts! Let’s be clear, the resignation of Hancock was prompted by a leaked security video published by the Sun, which is about as far from the Left as you can care to imagine. That kind of makes a mockery out of the author’s argument about the ‘left-wing baying mob’ being behind the string of recent Tory minister resignations, each as humiliating as the other.

He then goes onto credit the Tories for removing Liz Truss swiftly. Talk about giving credit where credit isn’t due.

So, the Tory press definitely lost the plot over Raab’s embarrassingly self-pitying resignation. But then such support of the fallen deputy PM within Conservative media circles only gives ammunition to the theory that the Tories are using the scandal to ‘politicise’ Whitehall to their own advantage.

Woke-bashing of the week: Britain’s arts scene derided ‘woefully woke’

The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square attracts over 120,000 visitors each year.  It prides itself on being a leading force in world theatre for cultivating and supporting writers, undiscovered, emerging and established.

“Through the writers, the Royal Court is at the forefront of creating restless, alert, provocative theatre about now. We open our doors to the unheard voices and free thinkers that, through their writing, change our way of seeing.”

Rather than embracing and feeling positive about such a progressive and inclusive mindset, Sunday Telegraph columnist Zoe Strimpel would have us believe Britain’s art scene, in being ‘obsessed with diversity and ensuring the right number of ‘voices’ are being heard,’ is in some sort of creative decline. 

Taking aim at the Royal Court Theatre, in her piece entitled ‘Britain’s arts scene is as woefully woke as ever,’ the author guns for a show called No ID. The one-person play starring Tatenda Shamiso, guides the audience through his experience as a Black transgender immigrant in the UK, and what it takes to validate Black and queer identities through the eyes of the law. The show achieved critical acclaim. In a four-star review, the Guardian described it as a ‘frank, funny and intimate exploration of gender transition.’

But acccording to the aggressively belligerent column in the Telegraph, it is testimony of the ‘third-rate rubbish’ being churned out by theatres and museums, and essentially proof that the Royal Court is wasting the £2m a year funding from state coffers.

The author also takes aim at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), which she derides as being ‘pure woke agitprop, with a whole section of its web page devoted to its commitment to ‘anti-racism.’ Strimpel resents how the ICA receives government funding, pointing to a £789,000 grant it received in 2021.

The issue of diversity within British art has been recognised as a big problem. Reports have shown how white and middle-class the creative arts are in Britain. The ICA acknowledges that in the past the organisation has maintained racial inequalities which have marginalised some individuals and communities.

In striving to improve its culture and behaviours so it is a ‘truly inclusive organisation,’ the ICA is surely creating a more positive environment where the differences of people are valued?

In 2018, the Arts Council’s chair and former Tate chief Sir Nicholas Serota said the arts must do more to embrace diversity and the issue was ‘crucial’ to the way in which society and the arts connect.

“Arts and culture have a part to play in ensuring that opportunity does not become confined to an ever smaller and self-selecting demographic. It is not only a matter of choosing to do the right thing, but of understanding diversity as a source of cultural inspiration,” he said.

But sadly, there’s no point preaching about why the likes of the ICA, the Arts Council and the Royal Court Theatre are committed to driving inclusivity. For the right-wing culture warriors, it will fall on deaf ears. For them, any institution that dares to mention ‘inclusivity’ acts as fodder for their anti-woke ideology.

The embracing of identity politics has opened the door for the reactionary right to insist there is a conspiracy going on to transform society as we know it. And the UK’s arts and culture scene is just one in a long-line of sectors to be the target of anti-woke hysteria at brain-rotting levels.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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