The Guardian view on Boris Johnson and Whitehall: stop the war | Editorial

Downing Street’s hostility to the civil service is a dangerous distraction from the task of governing in difficult times

Every prime minister has at some stage been frustrated with the machinery of government. They feel it is not geared to delivering their manifestos or, in more paranoid moments, that civil servants are engaged in sabotage. But the current intensity of Downing Street’s hostility to Whitehall is abnormal. Boris Johnson does not stoop to public attacks on senior mandarins, but his aides and parliamentary outriders talk about the civil service as an enemy. That view flows from the belief – not always wrong; usually exaggerated – that most civil servants thought Brexit was a mistake and approach it in terms of damage limitation. Mr Johnson wants the company of people who see only glorious opportunities in the UK’s separation from the EU. That prejudice breeds impatience with evidence and disregard for people who rely on it. That is a recipe for bad government.

Mr Johnson has already lost a chancellor by demanding that the Treasury surrender any independence from No 10. Sajid Javid resigned rather than tolerate institutional debilitation. Whether his successor, Rishi Sunak, puts up with it has yet to be seen. There might be gains in political efficiency from a submissive Treasury, but there are costs in downgrading a powerhouse of experience in economic policy. Suspicion of Whitehall also radiates from Downing Street’s defence of Priti Patel, the home secretary, over allegations of bullying. It is normal for the prime minister to take an ally’s side when there are rival accounts of what has happened, but the anonymous Conservative “sources” who have been pressing Ms Patel’s case go much further. They accuse Home Office officials of campaigning against their boss because of her political stances. The ugly inference is that officials who say they have been bullied are lying and their motive is softness on immigration and crime.

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