We are now a little clearer whether the Government is politicising
the Civil Service. This week we got chapter and verse on its
appointments so far. As an ex-civil servant who was said to have been
politicised, I find it hilarious that a Government which floated to
office on an anti-sleaze tide has, within a month, been accused of
corrupting the system.
But is there anything more to it than good, clean political fun?
Well, Sir Michael Bett, Civil Service First Commissioner and guardian of
its impartial recruitment, has waved a yellow card at Prime Minister
Tony Blair. He says he would be very concerned if a horde of politicos
were appointed without fair and open competition or if there was an
American-style clear out at the top. He has rationed No 10 to three
imports. No more, he says, without Parliamentary approval.
It is interesting that Sir Michael has felt it necessary to open his
mouth. But what has actually happened? So far only two political animals
have taken Civil Service posts in No 10. Jonathan Powell, a former
diplomat, has become a sort of fudged principal private secretary, Mr
Blair’s chief adviser, and Alastair Campbell his press secretary. Both
had the same jobs in opposition. An Order in Council was necessary to
give them authority over pukka civil servants.
I suspect that there is much more angst over Mr Powell than Mr
Mr Powell has taken the plum job for high-flying civil servants whereas
political press secretaries, at least in Labour Governments, are nothing
new. The last was the old Mirror man, Joe Haines, who served Harold
What is much more interesting, given Sir Michael’s beady eye, is how
many hangers-on are being rewarded with jobs in Government as so-called
political or special advisers at taxpayers’ expense. It is now clear
that Labour is much more of a jobs-for-the-boys Government than the
Tories were - 53 compared with 38 at salaries ranging from pounds 24,349
to pounds 73,484.
These include two party political appointees in the No 10 press office
as well as Mr Campbell.
It is a scandal that any political adviser should be paid from public
funds, but that point was conceded by the Conservatives long ago. When
we get the final advisers’ salaries bill, it seems likely that Labour
will be more generous in rewarding its supporters with public money than
the Tories were. But, leaving aside No 10 and the Treasury, it is
generally sticking to the Tory rule of no more than two special advisers
Thus, on present evidence, it is not possible to argue that Labour is
politicising the Civil Service.
But this rather sanctimonious Government is looking less than squeaky
clean. Is this its first PR failure?