It was like being slapped in the face with an HR pamphlet: HENRY DEEDES on the public administration select committee into Priti Patel’s bullying allegations
Get too close to snakes and chances are you’ll get bitten. It was with a certain squeamishness, then, that I plonked myself within yards of Whitehall grande fromaggios Sir Mark Sedwill and Sir John Manzoni at yesterday’s hearing in front of the public administration select committee.
Sedwill and Manzoni. Sounds like a cruise liner cabaret act, doesn’t it? Actually, I could quite see the two of them tinkling the ivories for ageing dowagers in the palm court.
As Cabinet Secretary and Civil Service chief executive respectively, they’re the two most influential bowers and scrapers in Government.
Sir John Manzoni and Sir Mark Sedwell are the two most influential bowers and scrapers in Government. It’s not often we get to hear from such juicy mandarins. They prefer to stand – nay, hover – in the background, free from the glare of public scrutiny
The pooh-bahs’ pooh-bahs, the éminence grises par excellence.
It’s not often we get to hear from such juicy mandarins. They prefer to stand – nay, hover – in the background, free from the glare of public scrutiny.
Every now and then they pop up for gentle bastings such as these before slithering back behind whichever rock they’ve been hiding.
The pair arrived dressed almost in identical uniforms. Grey suits, polished shoes, neatly cropped hair. Is there a little cut-out-and-keep guide on what to wear upon joining the Civil Service?
They certainly all speak a special vocab. Listening to them warble on about things being ‘central to delivery’ is like being slapped round the face with a human resources pamphlet.
The committee was led by William Wragg (Con, Hazel Grove), a sardonic young fogey aged 32 but going on 75. He began probing the resignation of former Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam, who has accused Home Secretary Priti Patel of bullying.
As the Civil Service’s two senior shop stewards, I wondered at this point if they might throw themselves on a pyre and launch into a treacly defence of their departed colleague.
You know the sort of thing: ‘A public servant of impregnable integrity, a tireless exponent of impartiality sacrificed at politics’ cruel altar’ etc, etc.
Not a bit of it. Rutnam’s decision to resign, said Sedwill, was ‘very regrettable’. Interesting word, regrettable. In my experience it tends to mean ‘daft’ rather than ‘sad’. Clearly neither Sedwill nor Manzoni saw reason why they should fall out with the Government over Rutnam’s posturing.
Conveniently, Sedwill could not go into details about Sir Philip’s case as the former Home Office chieftain is threatening the Government with legal action.
Pointedly, he revealed Sir Philip was yet to do so, which suggested Sedwill wasn’t sure he would.
The pair were before parliament as part of an investigation into allegations of bullying against Home Secretary Priti Patel
David Jones (Con, Clwyd West) wondered if, in light of Sir Philip’s accusations, the ministerial code now needed to define more clearly what bullying is.
Sir Mark was cautious about ‘over defining’ things. He admitted that in the Civil Service there could be ‘tensions and difficulties’ but felt it was all a question of balance. Translation: everything was running tickety-boo until Rutnam threw his toys out of the pram.
Wragg clumsily went digging for complaints about Mrs Patel from other government departments.
Had Sedwill ever advised a Prime Minister on a minister’s previous behaviour?
Sedwill wasn’t playing ball. All conversations with the PM were strictly private, he said solemnly.
A pinch of nerves briefly spread across his face when someone asked if such conversations would remain private at an employment tribunal. ‘We’ll see,’ he said hesitantly.
It was noticeable that Sedwill was the man doing nearly all of the talking. Manzoni preferred to sit languidly by his side, rolling his eyes in agreement behind those mildly sinister rimless spectacles, flashing his cufflinks every now and again with a rococo flourish. When he did speak it was almost in a whisper. A habit formed, perhaps, from murmuring discreet words in ministers’ lugholes down the years.
‘Weren’t you supposed to leave last December?’ Wragg observed at one point. ‘Last October, actually,’ Sir John replied proudly. Talk about putting the permanent in secretary.
David Mundell (Con, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) was keen to discuss Dominic Cummings’ recent call to fill No 10 jobs with ‘misfits and weirdos’.
Sedwill welcomed anything which ‘widens the aperture of public service’ but added haughtily that it wasn’t language he would have used.
Besides, it was a Conservative Party matter and nothing to do with him.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Lab, Brighton Kemptown) began chipping away about the controversial hiring of adviser Andrew Sabisky, who once expressed some unsavoury views on eugenics.
What sort of vetting was done? Sedwill wouldn’t elaborate, claiming to do so would compromise Civil Service procedure. Russell-Moyle grimaced in frustration, realising he was getting nowhere.
Round and round the committee’s questions went, all to little avail.
Meanwhile, Manzoni coolly twiddled his chrome-plated ballpoint around his thumb. Occasionally, he would emit a little snort of mirth at his colleague’s bon mots.
Civil servants, I fear, are rather good at this game.
A little too good…
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