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The “blob” strikes back

The civil service is at war with the government, if the annual conference of its union, the FDA, is anything to go by.

By Zoë Grünewald

“Whitehall ‘blob’ thwarts bonfire of Brexit laws,” the Telegraph announced yesterday (11 May), as the government was forced to revise its plan to replace 4,000 EU laws by the end of this year.

Cue more attacks on Whitehall. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former business secretary, tore into the “snowflakey, work-shy” civil service; Dominic Raab, who was forced to resign as deputy prime minister over allegations he bullied civil servants, implored Kemi Badenoch, the present Business Secretary, to “resist the resistance in Whitehall”.

It was, therefore, a serendipitous day for the the civil service union, the FDA, to have its yearly conference.

The crowd of delegates gathered in the ornate halls of the Institute of Civil Engineers were not carrying burning effigies, nor were they conspiring in dark corners or swapping stories about ministerial sabotage. They were a calm, friendly bunch, sipping coffee and chatting about their families, commutes and the benefits of flexible hours.

Among the fully packed union agenda, with time to discuss diversity, pay bands and staff networks, delegates received a keynote speech from David Gauke, the former Conservative MP and justice secretary, now a New Statesman columnist, which constituted a pleasant and articulate homage to the hard work of the civil servants. And there was a call to arms from the fiery general secretary, Dave Penman.

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Gauke’s speech was warmly received, as he defended the competence and impartiality of civil servants and admonished the naivety and poor planning of ministers. “I think there is a remarkable correlation between those who fail to understand the details and those who have been the most critical of the civil service,” he said, as he compared Brexit in policy terms to levelling up, where “the electorate was provided with great promises”, but with “little idea of the practicalities”. Sage nods across the room.

The mood shifted when Penman took the stage. He deplored civil servants’ low pay, asking why they had not being offered the same pay rise as health workers. He lamented the way civil servants were portrayed when standing up to Raab. And he cited continuous attacks of their impartiality. “Now, having been told you’re a lazy, woke, inefficient, Remainer, activist, snowflake, you are also now a Machiavellian genius, able to unseat ministers and undermine the settled will of government,” he said.

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[See also: The fall of Dominic Raab is a tale of change in modern Britain]

Penman, booming with authority, was met with rapturous applause by the delegates when he asked if they, like him, had had enough. He questioned Rishi Sunak promise on becoming Prime Minister that he would govern with “integrity and accountability” – words he said were simply “churned out as he sought to put clear blue water between the chaos and moral vacuum of the previous administrations”. Penman’s speech gave voice to civil servants who have so far mostly been silent (save the occasional anonymous quote or briefing about a minister’s behaviour). But with Penman reflecting the mood of the civil service, it is clear the government should be concerned by the level of hostility it is attracting.

As I spoke to delegates, many echoed Penman’s thoughts. One said that the public atmosphere had been “absolutely wearing” on them and they were “exhausted” by relentless attacks on civil servants. “People were on their knees in Downing Street” during the pandemic, they said, as they question why civil servants haven’t received an increased pay offer.

It is clear too that there remains much residual anger around Boris Johnson’s announcement when he was prime minister that he would cut up to a quarter of civil service jobs – almost 91,000 – which was briefed to the Daily Mail in May last year. For those who had devoted many years to the civil service, it was bruising. Penman cuttingly declared the announcement “so intellectually flawed and so transparently incomprehensible a strategy for serious government, that it was never going to survive the first contact with reality”. He reflected: “The civil service was just a convenient tool that [the government] could promise to cut to the bone, because let’s face it, who cares about civil servants?”

Should the government be concerned about the brewing discontent? The FDA is balloting its 22,000 members on potential strike action, demanding better pay and an end to attacks on civil servants’ impartiality. Strikes are never good for a government: a reminder of unhappy workers and meagre wages. But many civil servants are conscious that industrial action could play into the worst criticisms of Whitehall, and some are still undecided about how they’ll vote.

The real danger is the long-term attrition of talent. Civil servants told me me they didn’t join the service for money but out of a sense of public duty. Long-serving workers stay for the job security and perks that allow them a healthy work-life balance. But they feel all of this is now under attack in government briefings and a ministerial push to end flexible working.

The poor pay offers and anti-civil service briefings are already putting off talented younger employees, such as those on the civil service fast stream. Lauren Crowley, an FDA official, said that she was getting “dozens of messages every day” from people saying they were leaving the fast stream. “Why would you suffer, not being able to make ends meet, when at the end of it you’re going into a job where you could be attacked or bullied by a minister, and are blamed for policy failures on a daily basis by the government,” she said. “Morale is really, really low, and we are seeing people voting with their feet.”

[See also: Could disgruntled Tories really topple Rishi Sunak?]