Lurching from crisis to crisis, Johnson will soon run out of people to blame | Gaby Hinsliff | Opinion
Whatever happens, it is never, ever their fault. Disasters may come and disasters may go, but the defining characteristic of this government is a cast-iron refusal to accept responsibility for any of them. If pushed, then deputy heads must roll. But in general the buck stops – well, anywhere but here.
The education secretary Gavin Williamson has lurched from disaster to entirely foreseeable disaster ever since schools closed in March, yet sails on regardless, even as the bodies of his civil servants pile up around him.
On Tuesday it was Sally Collier, chief executive of the exam regulator Ofqual, who quit amid continuing recriminations over this summer’s A-level and GCSE grading fiasco. On Wednesday, his department’s most senior civil servant, Jonathan Slater, was forced to walk the plank on the day news emerged of yet another last-minute handbrake turn: after days of insisting that children didn’t need to wear masks in schools, they will now be compulsory in some circumstances after all.
Something is clearly very wrong when headteachers are better off following their gut instincts about what might happen next than relying on what ministers actually say. But for Downing Street, that something is Slater.
It would be worrying enough if this culture of power without responsibility were confined to the Department for Education, but Slater is the fifth senior mandarin ousted in under a year, following the permanent secretaries of the Foreign Office, Home Office and Ministry of Justice, plus the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill. Either this government has had the worst luck in the world – coming to power just as the civil service produced a freak crop of uniquely hopeless leaders – or what the Tory grandee Nicholas Soames called the “worst cabinet in my 36 years [in parliament]” may have found an alarming way of covering up its own inadequacies.
When even Bernard Jenkin, the staunch Brexiter who chairs the Commons liaison committee, starts warning of a pattern of ministers “blaming officials for decisions for which they are accountable”, alarm bells should be ringing. This isn’t some dusty constitutional question or slippery political game, but a form of rough justice with real consequences for real lives.
The education select committee hasn’t even started its inquiry into the exam grading fiasco, yet we’re already being invited to find Collier and Slater guilty. We could be years from a public inquiry into what went wrong in the early stages of the pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped the health secretary deciding to abolish Public Health England (the quango responsible for controlling infectious disease outbreaks). The clear message is that mistakes may have been made, but the guilty party has been safely taken out and shot – really, why bother with a trial?
While neither Ofqual nor PHE have entirely covered themselves with glory this year, and any inquiry might well find reasons to criticise both, for now all we’re getting is one suspiciously flattering side of the story.
If the aim of this Whitehall purge is to restore public confidence then it’s arguably having the opposite effect. For now, PHE remains the first port of call for everyone from headteachers dealing with suspected Covid outbreaks to major employers trying to reopen offices safely, yet the political attacks send a message that it can’t be trusted.
“We’re getting quite a lot of pushback from organisations, especially ones who don’t normally have much to do with us. It’s ‘How do we know your guidance is correct? We want to do X instead’,” says one veteran PHE staffer, who worries that its authority is being fatally undermined at a critical stage in the pandemic.
Meanwhile, talk of a “hard rain” falling on Whitehall, in Dominic Cummings’ now infamous words, is having precisely the opposite effect to the one this government supposedly seeks. The fear of getting sacked doesn’t encourage bold, innovative thinking; it just makes civil servants more risk-averse, preoccupied with covering their backs and, in some cases, reluctant to serve an operation they worry will throw them under a bus at the first sign of trouble. (After Sedwill was ousted, several leading candidates to succeed him are said to have instantly ruled themselves out.) And, over time, it may also encourage them to get their retaliation in first.
The convention that ministers don’t criticise civil servants in public, on the grounds that the latter can’t publicly defend themselves, has sometimes been grossly unfair on ministers; like all professions, the civil service has its share of duffers. But it is also often a minister’s best chance of guaranteeing discretion. An unhappy department can quickly become a spectacularly leaky one.
Yet the real problem with constantly shifting the blame is that while it fixes tomorrow’s headlines it doesn’t solve the underlying problem, which is why the government seems to keep on getting things wrong. What one former No 10 staffer calls a “macho inflexibility” at the heart of government – which hates giving its critics the satisfaction of admitting it’s wrong and so digs its heels in when it shouldn’t – is clearly part of the problem. But it cannot be the whole of it.
Is Boris Johnson really so uniquely ill-served by a machine that may have its faults but doesn’t seem to have failed previous governments anything like so frequently? Or could there be something wrong with the collective political judgment of a cabinet where commitment to the Brexit project is prized over competence?
Not all the advice ministers receive is good, and scientific advice in the middle of a new pandemic won’t always be conclusive or consistent; sometimes following the science will lead to good decisions but sometimes it will lead down a dead end. Nor do officials who excel at the technical detail always anticipate how a policy that looks good on paper might crumble on contact with real life.
But it is a minister’s job to stand back and see the wider picture; to prod and poke and ask all the right questions, exercise his or her best judgment wherever doubt and uncertainty remains, and then have the guts to stand behind it.
An education secretary who never stops talking about what his Scarborough comprehensive did for him should not have missed the admission – buried in Ofqual’s own published notes on its algorithm – that it might disadvantage unusually bright students in poorer schools. A government that prioritised rigour in the exam system above everything else, insisting that exam grades in this extraordinary summer couldn’t rise higher than last year’s, should stop blathering about “mutant algorithms” and own the consequences of its own decisions. If it can’t confront its own mistakes honestly, then it has no hope of learning from them. And sooner or later, it’s going to run out of other people to blame.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist