Thursday, 5 January 2017
Damaged The Reputation
Peter Oborne writes:
Six months have passed since the Brexit vote and the pro-European camp has finally found a hero in its anti-democratic and rather sour attempts to stymie the wishes of the British people.
He comes in the unlikely shape of Sir Ivan Rogers, who has resigned as our ambassador to Brussels — delivering a parting shot at Theresa May’s team for its ‘muddled thinking’.
Not surprisingly, this act of naked sabotage by a supposedly neutral civil servant has been the cause of a great deal of celebration among the metropolitan chattering classes who are struggling to come to terms with last June’s vote.
They are saluting what they claim to have been a principled act by a man of integrity.
In fact, it was nothing of the sort. Sir Ivan’s resignation is proof that he had failed at his job.
It is not the role of a civil servant, however senior or self-important, to express opinions of his or her own.
By convention and years of practice, civil servants are meant to be loyal to the Crown.
Their job is to advise ministers, and then to carry out their instructions.
If civil servants want to sound off with opinions, they are at liberty to quit their post and run for office, taking their chances with the voters.
As far as Sir Ivan was concerned, his instructions could not have been clearer. This is because they were issued by the British people during the EU referendum.
Unfortunately, Sir Ivan — formerly a private secretary to European Commissioner Leon Brittan and to the equally Europhile Tory heavyweight Ken Clarke — did not find them to his taste.
His justification for resigning is weak.
And yesterday it became weaker thanks to an act of unscrupulous duplicity by one of his most senior supporters.
Jonathan Powell, chief of staff at 10 Downing Street under Tony Blair, was wheeled onto Radio 4’s Today programme and used the ambassador’s resignation to launch a withering attack on Mrs May’s government.
He claimed that ministers had ‘broken the rule of an independent civil service’ in planning Brexit.
He professed outrage that the May government was returning the civil service to what he called the ‘jobbery of the 17th and 18th century’ by ending a special rule designed to ensure ‘that civil servants were politically neutral’.
I found my jaw dropping as Mr Powell launched into his attack.
Even by the famously low standards of Westminster, his hypocrisy was breathtaking.
I was a junior political reporter in the early years of the Blair government.
I can testify that it was disgracefully responsible for systematically setting about destroying the career of any civil servant who was not prepared to be unthinkingly loyal to New Labour — and then replacing those who refused with trusted Labour cronies.
Within two years of taking office, New Labour had got rid of all but two of Whitehall’s 17 directors of communications — an unprecedented attrition rate.
It marginalised and humiliated Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard (now Lord) Wilson.
It put trusted apparatchiks into key jobs and repeatedly refused to listen to those who offered independent and dispassionate advice.
It found ambassadorships for cronies and ex-ministers.
Shamefully, the Today programme failed to mention this background to listeners — that the very same Jonathan Powell had been the most senior Blairite henchman at the time of this barbarous attack on civil service integrity.
Interviewer John Humphrys simply explained that Powell knew ‘more about how the system works than any other human being’.
The truth was rather more complex.
Within days of winning power in 1997, Tony Blair bullied pliant civil servants into waving through special laws which gave Powell the power to give orders to top civil servants.
It is no exaggeration to say that Powell’s relationship to civil service integrity could be compared to that of serial killer GP Harold Shipman’s to medical ethics — or gangster Al Capone’s to law and order.
From the moment he entered Downing Street with Blair in 1997 to the moment they left together ten years later, Powell worked ceaselessly to undermine and destroy it.
His reach stretched so far that he was able to get away with making Blair’s notorious fabricated report on Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction even more convincing and therefore, in turn, to convince MPs to vote for Britain to go to war.
Indeed, Powell was so deeply up to his neck in the falsehoods told by Blair and George Bush in the lead-up to the Iraq war that his wife, Sarah Helm, was able to write a critical inside account about it.
Lord Chilcot went to see a stage version of her book when he was compiling his report into the war, and widened his inquiry as a result.
Yet here was a man who had the gall yesterday to defend the independence of the civil service and have a sneering laugh at his fellow interviewee, pro-Brexit Tory Iain Duncan Smith.
It takes the breath away.
The brutal truth is that during the Blair years, Powell’s conduct was scurrilously partisan and he constantly flouted codes of honesty and decency.
Time and time again, he was caught up in the most putrid corruption scandals.
Lies about the threat posed by Saddam.
The stench of the Hinduja passports scandal when Labour was said to have helped two billionaire Indian brothers obtain British passports after giving £1 million to the Millennium Dome — leading to Peter Mandelson’s resignation.
The scandal over Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to Labour. Powell was always lurking, playing a key role.
If anybody brought back to British public life the corruption and ‘jobbery of the 17th and 18th century’, it was Powell and his friends Blair, Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.
Indeed, an illustrated ‘map of power’ in Downing Street at the height of the Blair years, showed Powell at the apex.
His No. 10 empire — in a clear breach of the civil service ethics which Powell told the BBC yesterday he cared so much about — stretched to include power over the prime minister’s private secretary.
And who occupied that position when Powell held most sway at No 10?
None other than a rising young civil servant called Ivan Rogers.
What a small world we live in!
No wonder this unfortunate soul — having since been ennobled in the 2016 New Year’s Honours list — has now failed in his duty to carry out the wishes of the Government.
I am convinced that Sir Ivan has such a flawed view of decent civil service conduct because he was schooled inside the Blair government which was a byword for political mendacity.
In my book, The Triumph Of The Political Class, published towards the end of the Blair era, I revealed a telling story about Powell’s contempt for civil service ethics.
At one point, No. 10 propagandist Alastair Campbell was caught out in a political intrigue, helping a Tory MP to defect to Labour.
Technically, Campbell was a civil servant and therefore Whitehall officials complained that he was in contravention of civil service rules.
Powell — in a clear breach of his own position — leapt to his buddy Campbell’s defence, saying:
‘He works for the government and it is the government’s job to increase its majority in the Commons.’
These remarks, once again, showed how hopelessly flawed the concept of the role of a civil servant had become.
Sadly, that misconception continued after Blair left office.
For his part, out of government, Powell took a new role as senior adviser to Tony Blair Associates, the vehicle through which the former PM channelled many of his money-earning interests.
Then David Cameron appointed him special envoy to Libya, now a disaster zone.
The fact is that since he went to work for Blair a quarter of a century ago, Powell has played the role of broker between very rich men, the corporate elite and the political class.
It’s served him well. He’s made a lot of money.
Tragically, there are a lot of people like him in politics — men who are none too scrupulous in their constant wish to manipulate events.
But, normally, they don’t insult the public’s intelligence by hypocritically lecturing the nation about integrity.
By doing so yesterday, Jonathan Powell has not only made himself a laughing stock, but, more important, he has damaged the reputation of our present generation of leading civil servants.