Allister Heath lamented in the Telegraph this week that David Cameron’s appointment to the Foreign Office showed that the “pro-EU anti-Israel blob” was now back in charge. The truth is far worse than that. The blob was always in charge just as it also appears to be in charge of every other key department of state.
If James Cleverly had genuinely been in control of the FCDO, would the U.K. in late October have abstained rather than vote with the U.S. against Jordan’s motion at the United Nations general assembly for a prolonged humanitarian truce in Gaza?
The fact is that cabinet ministers are not just unable to control their departments – they are now barely able to merely influence them. Jacob Rees-Mogg has talked candidly of ministers’ lack of direct line management authority over civil servants. As Cabinet Office Minister in April 2022 he was frustrated with their work-from-home culture but could do little about it. He was reduced to touring empty offices and leaving behind cards on empty desks that read: “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”
According to Yuan Yi Zhu on Unherd, Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, told his civil servants to comply with the Government’s instruction for Whitehall departments to fly the Israeli flag for a week as a gesture of solidarity after the October 7th Hamas massacres. Barclay’s officials refused. Barclay “persuaded” them to put the flag up only, it was reported, for it to be taken down by a “recalcitrant” civil servant. As Yuan Yi Zhu writes:
Meanwhile, Barclay tried to cajole his civil servants into lighting the entrance to the department’s building in the colours of the Israeli flag, but had only managed to have blue light projected in the face of official opposition. Apparently, the department’s projectors, which are quite capable of reproducing the rainbow, could not provide white lighting on that particular occasion.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is studiously polite and Barclay is nobody’s idea of a bully. Perhaps ministers with a more forthright reputation hold more sway over their department. Kemi Badenoch, for example? Badenoch has been very vocal about Critical Race Theory (CRT) and has been dismissive about the value of training in the divisive pseudoscience. In the House of Commons in 2020 she described CRT as “a dangerous trend in race relations”. And yet the Department for Business and Trade has a Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage (Reach) network which recently met to discuss the book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. As Matthew Goodwin told the Telegraph:
For all of Kemi Badenoch’s [the Secretary of State for the Department for Business and Trade] rhetoric attacking Critical Race Theory, it is now clear that this divisive ideology has captured her own department. Whilst civil servants should not waste their work time discussing these radical narratives around race, it is up to ministers to put an end to this. The Conservative Party has had 13 years to clamp down on officials who promote concepts like CRT, yet nothing ever seems to change. Instead of talking the talk, as Kemi and other Conservative MPs sometimes like to do on these issues, it is time for ministers to walk the walk.
Surely, someone more fiery – say, the recently defenestrated Suella Braverman – would be better at imposing her will on civil servants. Not according to an anonymous Home Office Staffer writing in the Telegraph:
For all her strident bearing, Suella was cringingly apologetic in speeches to Home Office staff. Instead of instilling much needed discipline, she would tell us what a great job we were doing, not that this got her any kind of loyalty. She was mocked and insulted by London-based staff furious at the refusal to extend safe routes to an ever-growing number of countries.
It is possible that some past ministers genuinely stood up to their civil servants. Both Priti Patel and Dominic Raab fell to confected bullying complaints against them which suggests some form of falling out. But the depressing truth appears to be a tacit acceptance on the part of ministers: Talk tough in public but do not attempt to change the direction of travel chosen by the blob. That direction is very much leftwards – anti-Israel, pro-open borders and all the other items on the misanthropic prix fixe menu of the New Left. Much as Foreign Office staff may welcome the appointment of Cameron, it makes little difference – they’ve been in control for some time.
Ian Price is a Business Psychologist. Find him on X (Twitter).