The Blob, a 1950s science fiction B-movie, is about an alien amoeba that crashes to Earth and devours everything it touches. The movie is mostly remembered for the performance of a young Steve McQueen, but its title and plot live on in British politics today as the inspiration for Boris Johnson and his allies to reform government.
The first strike against “the blob” the Johnson government sees as its enemy was made on Sunday evening, when Mark Sedwill, head of the civil service and national security adviser, abruptly quit. Tensions had been rising between Mr Johnson and Sir Mark for months, but the announcement of his exit in September marks the start of an effort to overhaul the Whitehall establishment.
While Mr Johnson is supportive of the plan to reform the UK civil service, he is not spearheading the efforts. Instead it is his powerful adviser Dominic Cummings and the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove who are leading the charge in tackling what they see as ineffective, pro-EU bureaucrats.
Mr Cummings started to refer to the blob in a political context when he was taking on the education bureaucracy during Mr Gove’s tenure as education secretary between 2010 and 2014. “The blob back then was the teaching unions, local authorities and anyone who got in Dom’s way. Now it’s the whole of the civil service,” said one Whitehall official.
Since leaving the Department for Education six years ago, Mr Cummings has written thousands of words on how he would like to reform the civil service. His general goals are well known: he wants fewer arts graduates and more scientists, data crunchers, mathematicians and physicists. Or, as he wrote in one blog in January, “misfits and weirdos”.
The agenda for reform was formally presented this weekend, as Mr Johnson plotted to sack his most senior civil servant. Delivering the annual lecture on Saturday evening to the Ditchley Foundation — the international relations institution — Mr Gove called for Whitehall departments to be dispersed around the country promising more room for innovation, a wider talent pool, and ending the merry-go-round of senior mandarins.
Core to the Gove-Cummings agenda is a belief that Whitehall is too disconnected from parts of the UK, especially those that backed Brexit in the EU referendum four years ago. “Almost every arm of government, and those with powerful voices within it, seemed estranged from the majority in 2016,” he said.
Channelling Franklin Delano Roosevelt — something the prime minister also did on Monday — Mr Gove said the Johnson government’s reforms in Whitehall would help those left behind by the political system. “FDR asked his government to remember the forgotten man. In the 2016 referendum those who had been too often forgotten asked to be remembered,” the cabinet minister said.
Not all independent observers were convinced. Jill Rutter, a former senior civil servant, said: “A lot of his critique was one that the civil service would recognise, but one that has been around for a long time. What was missing was what they are going to do different this time around to make it work.”
Whatever the merits of Mr Gove’s reform agenda, it clashes with another core instinct of the Johnson government: loyalty. “In Boris’s book, it comes above everything including competence,” said one ally of the prime minister.
An example of how these conflict has already been seen in the appointment of David Frost, Mr Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, as Sir Mark’s replacement as national security adviser. Although Sir David is rated highly by Mr Johnson’s inner circle, the defence and diplomatic establishment has poured scorn on the appointment, pointing to his lack of experience in security affairs.
“Michael spent the weekend saying he wanted people to stay in their jobs longer, then they moved out Sedwill, who is the shortest-lived cabinet secretary,” said one former cabinet minister, referring to Mr Gove’s speech.
“And all that stuff from Michael about getting experienced people into the top jobs, then they appoint Frost to national security adviser? It's all highly amusing.”
Whoever Mr Johnson chooses to succeed Sir Mark will say much about the reform agenda. Despite his hasty exit as the most senior civil servant in the country, there is no obvious successor. The Whitehall favourite is Chris Wormald, permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care. But officials question whether he will be tainted by the handling of coronavirus crisis.
Another likely candidate is Antonia Romeo, permanent secretary at the Department of International Trade, who is also said to be interested in taking over as the head of the newly enlarged Foreign Office once it has merged with the Department for International Development.
But if Mr Johnson insists on an experienced civil servant who is an ardent Brexit supporter, Peter Schofield, head of the Department for Work and Pensions, is the obvious candidate as he has made it known he is the only permanent secretary who voted to leave the EU. Sarah Healey, currently leading the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, is also highly rated by Mr Gove and the Cabinet Office.
Two external candidates for the top job are rumoured at senior levels of the civil service. Melanie Dawes, head of Ofcom, may be a candidate, but officials again question whether her record as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Housing during the Grenfell Tower disaster may discount her.
The other notable external candidate being discussed is Sharon White, chair of the retailer John Lewis. Previously the second most senior civil servant at the Treasury and head of Ofcom, some in Whitehall wondered whether the reference to “former permanent secretaries” in the recruitment notice was made for her. But friends of Ms White said she is unlikely to apply.
Sir Mark’s replacement will be appointed by Mr Johnson, but the next head of the civil service will not be selected without the consent of his two allies in charge of the reform process. Government insiders said it is unsurprising that Mr Gove has been selected to oversee these reforms. His bond with Mr Cummings is as close as the prime minister’s, which some ministers said shows where the actual power of this government lies.
One senior Whitehall official said: “Boris is the chairman of this government, but Michael is the CEO” — a sentiment echoed by other officials. One well-placed Conservative added: “I hadn’t realised until the last couple of weeks that Michael actually won the Tory leadership contest. He’s the one really running this government.”
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