News | Published June 30 2020

William Hague: government ‘right in theory, muddled in practice’ on civil service reform

Michael Gove delivered a speech on Saturday setting out the government’s vision for reforming the civil service. As if to display the full force of their intent, this was followed a few hours later by the announcement that Sir Mark Sedwill would be departing as cabinet secretary.

In response, Mr Gove’s former cabinet colleague William Hague used his column in today’s Daily Telegraph to both criticise and praise the approach.

‘The Gove speech followed by the Sedwill departure looks akin to a student handing in a brilliant theory paper and then getting rather muddled on the first practical test. It is a pity, because the theory is a good one, and whoever is the new Cabinet Secretary will need to be serious about pursuing it. That, indeed, should be the condition for their appointment, rather than how they voted in the referendum or any election.’

Mr Hague recalled how he first met Sir Mark when he was ambassador to Afghanistan during ‘a full-scale war’. He was impressed enough to give him a senior job in the Foreign Office only for Theresa May to poach him for the Home Office.

‘I said she could only take him if the Prime Minister himself, David Cameron, called me and insisted on it, which he duly did. Sir Mark was very highly regarded by a string of Prime Ministers, on which Boris Johnson has maintained he agrees.’

According to Mr Hague, Sir Mark is ‘a pretty good example of the risk-taking and expertise that Michael Gove correctly wants to encourage.’

Indeed, the key message of Mr Gove’s speech, where he calls for public servants to be more diverse, more expert and more open to experimentation is one that Mr Hague overwhelmingly supports, describing the speech as a ‘a vintage performance from one of the most effective ministers of recent years.’

Yet, the danger, according to Mr Hague, is that in pursuing individuals who possess such qualities the government will neglect the many within the civil service who already do.

He is also concerned by reports in The Telegraph that the government has decided Sir Mark’s replacement will be a Brexiteer.

‘Of course, he or she will have to be very good at delivering Brexit,’ he said, ‘but that’s a different requirement. Some civil servants are brilliant at executing policies they didn’t vote for themselves.’

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Authored by

William Winter
June 30 2020

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