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Minuting the frenzy

In Whitehall one person above all has a ringside seat watching the shambles at the heart of government, finds Sue Cameron

The Official History of the Cabinet Secretaries by Ian Beesley (Routledge, £90)

The Cabinet Office, 1916-2016: The Birth of Modern Government by Anthony Seldon and Jonathan Meakin (Biteback, £25)

When Ivan Rogers abruptly resigned in January as Britain’s ambassador to the European Union, the fallout reverberated throughout Whitehall and Westminster. His outspoken farewell letter to his staff urging them to continue challenging “ill-founded argument and muddled thinking,” and never to be afraid of speaking truth to power caused outrage among right-wing politicians. They claimed it showed that Rogers had not been a politically neutral civil servant, adding that he had taken sides in the Brexit debate by suggesting that it could take the UK 10 years to leave the EU. There were demands that his successor should be someone who would take a hard Brexit line—possibly a politician.

Much fury ensued, with muttering about unprecedented chaos, but in reality the strains that showed were not new. The row raised the age-old dilemma about whether it is possible for mandarins to remain impartial in giving policy advice when they disagree with a government’s political aims. Civil servants always say it is, while their ministerial masters sometimes doubt it. Mutual suspicion on this point has often led to strained relations, adding to the chaos and uncertainty that routinely lurks inside No 10.

One hundred years have passed since Maurice Hankey wrote in despair about “the scrambles of ministers to get their pet subjects discussed at Cabinet meetings... the endless rambling discussions with no one to give a decision,” and “the humiliating and dangerous doubts of what the decision was, or whether there had been a decision at all.” Hankey, a man with a passion for order and for power, became the first cabinet secretary in 1916, and held the post for 22 years. More influential than most ministers, it was Hankey who began to impose discipline on the political pandemonium during the First World War—but it was always an uphill fight.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s March issue: Sam Tanenhaus, George Magnus and Dahlia Lithwick examine the state of America after Donald Trump’s first couple of weeks. Tanenhaus looks at the situation faced by the American press, Magnus looks at the state of global trade and Lithwick inspects the diminishing right to choice women face over abortion. Anne Perkins explores the rise of Theresa May through the political ranks and David Edmonds looks at how empathy affects our decision making. Also in this issue: Jay Elwes on Trump’s relationship with America’s intelligence agencies, Anita Charlesworth on the state of the NHS and Nick Cohen on what is done in the name of “the people” by politicians