Are British bureaucrats rebelling against the Johnson administration?

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In fiction around the world, government employees, civil servants, and office workers are often treated with humor or contempt.

For Anton Chekhov, clerks were underpaid little people obsessed with seemingly trivial worries, like losing a warm coat in the winter. In Herman Melville’s stories, a civil servant is always in the office early in the morning and late at night, until you realize he’s sleeping there. He has no other life. In Britain, senior civil servants are sometimes referred to as “mandarins”, arrogant comedy characters satirized in an old television series called Yes Minister. Civil servants, special advisers and the like always seem to agree with their bosses – government ministers – but the joke is that behind the scenes they are truly manipulative and subversive, conspiring to keep their elected bosses at their mercy.

In the UK today, the difficult relationships that civil servants have with government ministers almost always make the news, but rarely in comedic form.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is a senior minister with the glorious title of “Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Effectiveness”. He is best known as an eccentric old Etonian pictured lying flat on the pews of the UK’s House of Commons, apparently asleep during a parliamentary debate. Now Mr Rees-Mogg has insisted that civil servants working from home as a result of coronavirus should return to the office. He puts passive-aggressive notes on empty desks saying, “Sorry, you were away when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.

There was widespread disbelief that a government minister had so little to do that he would circle the desks of the British bureaucracy in what one labor leader called ‘the most crass and condescending act I’ve ever had. saw from a minister”. A spokesperson for Mr Rees-Mogg confirmed the messages were real.

The apparent conflict between British government bureaucrats and their ministerial bosses goes much deeper. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reportedly preparing to abandon the Northern Ireland protocol. This is part of the Brexit deal to prevent violence from happening again in Northern Ireland. Having brokered the deal, Mr Johnson now appears set to backtrack on what is an international deal, seriously damaging Britain’s credibility abroad.

The Irish government, other EU member states, the Biden administration in Washington as well as many UK government advisers are unhappy that a deal so recently signed could be torn up. A few days ago a former senior government adviser told me that British civil servants and advisers today feel they can no longer ‘speak truth to power’ on this or other issues because that Mr Johnson and his ministers do not listen to advice, however sound it may be. in fact and experience, this may be the case.

Then there is the UK Home Office under Home Secretary Priti Patel. She has the difficult task of deciding what to do with migrants and asylum seekers, who risk their lives crossing the English Channel in small boats. Ms Patel could of course arrange a legal route into the UK via a government immigration unit in Calais, on the French coast. But she won’t because the Conservative party depends on the support of some voters who – there’s no nice way to put it – hate immigrants and asylum seekers.

Ms Patel has previously suggested an idea that Border Force or Navy personnel could somehow ‘push back’ dinghies and other small boats out to sea. This would undoubtedly result in loss of life and possibly criminal charges for manslaughter. It was challenged by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, representing workers who might be called upon to perform or organize such a dangerous task.

Ms Patel is also facing what has been described as a “mutiny” by staff who have been told to plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. Unions representing public servants suggest – as one union leader, Dave Penman of the FDA, put it – that staff could be forced to “implement [this plan] or quit” their jobs at the Home Office. Another union leader, Mark Serwotka of the PCS union, calls the policy “totally inhumane”. Following opposition from her own senior advisers, Ms Patel even had to issue what is known as a Ministerial Instruction to implement the policy against their considered advice.

All of this inevitably leads to the pinnacle of British politics and Mr Johnson’s own staff. Some were forced to resign following the chaos of Downing Street’s rudderless operation. Some are now facing fines following parties during the coronavirus lockdown, parties which the Prime Minister himself attended in breach of his own rules and regulations.

Britain’s once widely envied bureaucracy is now in a sorry state. A Conservative cabinet minister used to refer to this bureaucracy as “the Blob,” a group of men and women who he said regularly thwarted reform. That may sometimes be true. But civil servants are also a reservoir of skills, experience and knowledge. They know very well the faults of politicians. It’s no surprise that the Johnson administration has many leaks to staff reporters quietly rebelling against their own bosses.

Posted: April 26, 2022, 07:00

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