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29 May 2023

The right’s obsession with “the blob” shows it is losing

This conspiracy theory is the last resort of a populist movement desperate to avoid responsibility for its own failures.

By Martin Fletcher

Help me out here. Do you know any members of the “blob” – that deeply subversive and seemingly omnipotent movement of civil servants which is secretly undermining our democratically elected government?

What, none of you? But there are thousands of “blobbies” out there, all doing their damndest to destroy their ministers and thwart any legislation they do not approve of. I know that because right-wing Tories and their media mouthpieces are constantly railing against those “enemies within”.

The blob is preventing Brexit from becoming the glorious act of national liberation that it should have been. The blob is blocking the bonfire of EU regulations that we were promised. It is preventing all those pesky asylum seekers being deported to Rwanda. It is stifling economic growth with its “Treasury orthodoxy”. It is encouraging the tidal wave of “wokery” sweeping across Britain.

That’s not all. The “blob” (aka the “anti-growth coalition”, the “quangocracy” and the “tofu-eating wokerati”) actively conspires to bring down those prime ministers and ministers it doesn’t like – Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Dominic Raab, Suella Braverman.

Only last week Allister Heath wrote a column in the Daily Telegraph headlined: “The woke blob is about to achieve its greatest triumph: its final takeover of Britain.” The Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn wrote that “nothing less than a coup is taking place in Britain… The ultra-woke civil service and renegade Tories still loyal to the EU are working to destroy an elected government.”

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After Raab resigned for bullying his officials, the Express reported that Rishi Sunak had “caved into the baying mob of Whitehall civil servants”. Raab himself complained of “a small minority of very activist civil servants… who don’t like some of the reforms, whether it’s Brexit, whether it’s parole reform, whether it’s human rights reform. [They’re] effectively trying to block government.”

Braverman told Conservative Party members: “We tried to stop the small boats crossings without changing our laws. But an activist blob of left-wing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour Party blocked us.”

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The “blob”, incidentally, is an endlessly expandable term, capable of including activist judges, leftie lawyers, politically correct police chiefs, experts, the Remainer elite, woke academics, the BBC and assorted other groups whenever it’s convenient.

It is certainly true that civil servants have good reason to dislike their Conservative masters. Since the brief reign of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief strategist, they have suffered nothing but abuse from ministers. They have been publicly accused, time and again, of laziness, incompetence and malingering at home. Their permanent secretaries have been fired at will. Playing to the gallery, Johnson announced plans (in the Mail) to slash their numbers by almost a quarter – 91,000. 

[See also: David Davis interview: “The right to demonstrate includes the right to disrupt”]

But here’s the thing. I know lots of civil servants. They may not like these Tory governments, but to a man, or woman, they are decent, honest and conscientious people who would not dream of violating their constitutional duty to serve the government of the day.

And here’s another question. How can the blob still be so powerful after 13 years of unbroken Conservative rule? How can it still be the secret “establishment” when the Tories have won four general elections in a row, and when successive Conservative prime ministers have ruthlessly sought to politicise the civil service by putting supporters in top positions? 

Thus Johnson replaced Mark Sedwill as cabinet secretary, the most senior civil service position, with the far more malleable Simon Case. Thus (disastrously) Truss ousted Tom Scholar, the Treasury’s hugely respected permanent secretary, in one of her first acts as prime minister. Thus so many permanent secretaries have been fired in recent years. And thus Johnson imposed Richard Sharp, a crony and Tory party donor, as chairman of the BBC.

[See also: The Tory crack-up]

Is Sue Gray, the partygate investigator, a member of the blob? Hardly, though Keir Starmer has since appointed her his chief of staff. It was Johnson who put her in charge of that investigation while praising her honesty and integrity.

How about Laurie Magnus, the prime ministerial ethics adviser whose investigation of Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs triggered the resignation of the Conservative Party chair? Nope. He was appointed by Sunak. Or Adam Tolley, the KC whose report on Raab’s bullying prompted the Justice Secretary’s resignation? Again, no. He, too, was appointed by Sunak.

Surely Heather Hallett, the Covid inquiry chair who is demanding access to Johnson’s diaries, is a fully paid-up member of the blob? Hardly. It was Johnson who appointed the former appeal court judge to the role.

The truth is that the blob exists only in the fertile minds of right-wing Tories and their media supporters, and what a wonderful invention it is – faceless, amorphous, impossible to disprove and incapable of answering back.

I’m not saying the civil service is perfect. On the contrary, most of the civil servants I know would readily admit that it needs reforming and modernising. But if it has underperformed over the past few years, it is for a host of reasons beyond its control.

It has been stretched to the limit by the extreme demands of Brexit and the Covid pandemic. It has been asked to deliver the undeliverable promises – particularly on Brexit – of its political masters. It has suffered from a constant churn of prime ministers (four in as many years), each reversing the direction set by their predecessor. Its departments have been led, for the most part, by short-lived, mediocre ministers appointed more for their loyalties than their abilities. 

The more the right-wingers talk about the blob the happier the rest of us should be. It is a measure of their weakness. It is a conspiracy theory concocted to distract and divert. It is the last resort of a populist movement desperate to avoid responsibility for its own egregious failures and misconduct. It is the ultimate cowardly cop-out.

[See also: What do the Tories have to show for 13 years in office?]

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