Civil Servants, just like nearly everyone else in the country, was expecting a Conservative government to be returned to power following last week’s General Election. Few, if any, were expecting a change in Prime Minister. Some may have been pondering the pros and cons of a reshuffle, but staff in most Departments were working on the basis that most, if not all, their Ministerial team would remain unchanged.
The machine would have done its job and generated briefing on the Labour Party manifesto. Whitehall is nothing if not scrupulous about such things. But on Monday morning the civil service found itself with the Prime Minister it expected, leading the party it expected to be in Government, and with a Cabinet that it had got to know and was getting used to working with. So much the same, and yet so very different at the same time. The civil service is very good at dealing with changes of political direction. Reshuffles and changes of administration are much more keenly felt in Whitehall than in local government. This is partly because a Permanent Secretary has much less executive power than a council Chief Executive and because their Secretary of State is often under the close eye of No.10. This means that the best of them can turn on a sixpence. But my hunch is that this even-crazier-than-normal moment of all change, no change is going to take just a bit of figuring out. If you are working with Government in the weeks ahead, here are a few things that might be worth bearing in mind.
Firstly, don’t underestimate the extent to which the machine, including Ministers, will want to get on with business in an apparently normal way. The election was last week and this week there is the business of Government to attend to. But the recently departed Chiefs of Staff in No.10 set the pace and process of decision making. Yes, they reflected the boss’ instincts to consider carefully and avoid news where possible. I’m not suggesting that Secretaries of State, let alone junior ministers, will now be able to announce new things at whim. But the new team will have a new approach. And everyone will be trying to second guess that approach and learn how to work with it.
Secondly, with no majority, taking any legislation through Parliament just got even more difficult. There is a fine line here which may prove one of the most challenging for this Government. Don’t legislate at all and you run the risk of looking like you aren’t doing anything, whilst the calls for action from various interest groups build up. Lose more than a handful of votes and the already limited stores of credibility and political capital will be all used up, making a no confidence vote more likely. So, expect little action on anything remotely legislatively risky. Security and preventing domestic extremism will be important both in the light of recent atrocities and because it will unify the DUP and Conservative parties. But generally, existing policy which has already been agreed and for which legislation is already in place, will be the safest space in which to operate.
But, thirdly, the civil service is also working for a Government that has decided itself that it wasn’t elected to deliver its own manifesto. This will be something of a conundrum for Ministers and their officials. If you can’t legislate, and all that everyone can agree about the manifesto was that it was awful, then what, exactly, is on the to-do list? Whitehall’s challenge here is an opportunity for local business and political leaders. Finding things that can be done, which will be welcomed locally and support confidence in the economy, is likely to be met even more positively than previously.
Fourthly, good ideas are going to be doubly welcomed if they come from and with the support of businesses. It is not hard to accurately imagine the tone of some of the calls to No.10 over the weekend from the leaders of our biggest businesses and the City of London. This is a Conservative government about which the only positive thing that businesses will say is that it isn’t led by Jeremy Corbyn. This is uncomfortable ground for any Tory PM, particularly one that has so annoyed her backbenchers. So, expect Secretaries of State and No.10 to be particularly interested in what businesses have to say. Greg Clark has a big opportunity and challenge in creating an approach to industrial policy that works for business and local growth. He will be committed to getting it right.
Fifth, look at the economy. Employment is high, but growth is sluggish at best, wages and living standards are perceived by the electorate to be falling and, where wages are high, no-one can afford a house. We know that linking up spending on infrastructure, housing and skills needs to be done better. And we know that building more housing (with associated social infrastructure) matters. But now, maybe, there will be some effort in Whitehall to achieve it, particularly as this really doesn’t need legislation. It’s certainly worth cities pressing their ideas. And with Gavin Barwell in No.10 and Sajid Javid staying at DCLG, recent progress on housing might continue.
Six, I didn’t mention HM Treasury. All thoughts, however speculative, of breaking up the Department will have been consigned to the dustbin (where they always end up). But equally, don’t expect a sudden reversal in the move of power from No.11 to No.10. Secretaries of State and their Permanent Secretaries may secretly welcome the changes at No.10, but none of them will be arguing for a return to the days of an overmighty HMT.
And, finally, unavoidably, there is Brexit. The main impact on Whitehall is that lots of people are being moved into Brexit related roles. The impact of this is only going to increase in the weeks and months ahead.
So what to do. My advice is to work with your business leaders on the ideas that drive growth and benefit communities and individuals, be clear where investment needs to be joined up and what needs to happen to make it so. Understand your local exposure to different Brexit challenges and opportunities. Don’t wait for officials to tell you what can and can’t be done, but don’t count on anything that needs legislation. And perhaps, more provocatively, cities could ask for a little less permission whilst assuming a greater chance of forgiveness. Local leadership just got even more important.