Melanie Phillips

14 November 2005

The Whitehall free-for-all

Published in: Daily Mail

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In his book entitled 'DC Confidential', Sir Christopher has accused Tony Blair of fluffing the chance to influence the Bush administration by being starstruck by the glamour of Washington. He has dismissed several senior Cabinet ministers as 'pygmies'. And he has furnished descriptions of briefing Mr Major in his bedroom and even in his bathroom at Number Ten as he performed his early morning ablutions.

Politicians and mandarins have queued up to denounce the book as a betrayal of confidences. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has condemned it as 'completely unacceptable'. Two former Cabinet Secretaries have said it is a betrayal of trust. Lord Heseltine has called on Sir Christopher to step down from his post as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission.

For his part, Sir Christopher has hit back strongly, accusing ministers of double standards and pointing out that the government itself cleared his book for publication without requesting a single amendment.

The truth, in my view, is surely that Sir Christopher has behaved badly. Revealing the content of private conversations almost immediately upon leaving office is indeed a betrayal of trust and wholly unacceptable between any employee and employer, whether in or out of government.

But ministers can hardly complain when this book had been vetted by the Cabinet Office, which consulted the Foreign Office before clearing it for publication. So why have ministers now come down on Sir Christopher's head like the proverbial ton of bricks?

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the damage done by his book is not so much political as personal. He does not reveal any smoking guns about the Iraq war or anything else. Instead, he describes Mr Straw as 'intimidated and tongue-tied' by official circles in Washington, or John Prescott talking about 'the Balklands'.

What has surely got under the thin ministerial skin is the cutting condescension of a superior Whitehall Pooh-Bah in belittling who belittles the undereducated political novices he had to serve whose trousers were too tight and who fell over their words.

It is hard to see what else they are complaining about. Breach of trust? Betrayal of Whitehall's codes of behaviour? Of course - wholesale, appalling and improper. But what's new? Isn't there more than a whiff of hypocrisy about the Government's attacks on him?

For Sir Christopher's behaviour is an emblem of the collapse of integrity throughout Whitehall, brought about in large measure by the very ministers who are now singling him out for attack.

After all, he has hardly pioneered the indecent sprint from the corridors of power into the arms of the publishing trade. There has been an unending stream of ministers and former officials rushing into print as soon as they leave office, and yet with barely a head turned.

Clare Short, Robin Cook, Geoffrey Robinson and Mo Mowlam all published memoirs and diaries shortly after leaving office, while David Blunkett, John Prescott and Gordon Brown are understood to have co-operated with the production of biographies, with colleagues queuing up anonymously to dish the dirt on their political opponents.

Many of these accounts detailed exchanges with civil servants who were still in post. Not surprisingly, therefore, civil servants and other public officials have taken this as a green light to do exactly the same. So we've had the memoirs of Lance Price, a former Downing Street spin doctor; Derek Scott, the Prime Minister's former economic adviser; Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner; and Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5. When a top official from the country's secret service breaks cover like this - however anodyne her account - the world, as Sir Christopher has observed, has indeed radically changed.

And over all of these dangles the prospect of the biggest potential breach of confidence of them all, the memoirs of the Prime Minister's former press secretary and eminence grise Alistair Campbell who, having personified the politicisation of the civil service and the destruction of government integrity, is now poised to breach wholesale the confidences he obtained from this position.

If he is allowed to publish his own memoirs, on what possible basis can ministers claim that Sir Christopher has broken the rules?

Even so, all these wrongs still do not make a right. Of course, once an official brings information into the public domain, the media have no option but to report it. But the essential discipline for a civil servant - much more than for an elected politician - is to remain silent.

It is not surprising that diplomats are reportedly horrified by Sir Christopher's book. For in the absence of official discretion, the conduct of government becomes impossible. If ministers or officials fear that their words are being recorded in a diary for eventual publication, they will simply refuse to speak freely, and government will then become paralysed.

The whole point of the civil service is that, however politicians may behave, their officials are supposed to uphold the constant and unchanging integrity of the public realm by keeping their distance. If politicians tell whoppers, their civil servants hold their tongue. This is because - until now - they have understood that they serve a greater good which transcends individual politicians, and which is the orderly process of government.

What we now have instead is something approaching government anarchy. The dispassionate integrity of the British civil service has been systematically destroyed. It was Mrs Thatcher who first began to politicise Whitehall. This was vastly extended by the Blair government which, believing the civil service was an impediment to its will, has by-passed and undermined it at every turn.

A dispassionate civil service that was removed from the fray was one of the crowning constitutional glories of the Victorian era. But now, that crucial distance between politicians and Whitehall has vanished. Instead, this government has subverted the civil service by advisers and czars, all designed to circumvent or bully public officials who are viewed as an obstacle to New Labour's will.

The former head of the civil service, Lord Butler, has said that senior civil servants should abide by a 'self-denying ordinance' not to reveal the confidences of their political masters. But it was Lord Butler who stood spinelessly by while the Blair government took an axe to the integrity of the government machine that Lord Butler was supposed to defend.

Mr Straw has accused Sir Christopher of undermining the key relationship between civil servants and ministers. But it is Mr Straw's own government that has eviscerated that relationship, and thus caused public officials aghast at 'sofa government' and the culture of lies and spin and manifold incompetence to want to set the record straight in what they perceive is a public disclosure free-for-all.

The mystery, though, is why the Cabinet Office approved Sir Christopher's book. The suspicion lingers that senior officials were not exactly unhappy to see the politicians they hold in such contempt brought low.

Whatever the explanation, this farcical situation cannot continue. Consistency and self-discipline have to be brought back to Whitehall, and official discretion re-imposed. But that in turn has to go hand in hand with a restoration of the dispassionate integrity of the civil service, without which government in Britain will continue to be the unprincipled shambles it has so distressingly become.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie