These destructive, vindictive civil service cuts are part of Johnson’s culture wars

The vast majority of the UK’s 475,000-odd civil servants are sick of political psychodrama, and don’t care exactly when Boris Johnson decides to scuttle off into the gilded obscurity of the panel comedy shows, neoliberal speaking circuits and biography discount bins that are his natural habitat. But we do care about the damage his necrotic and bullying period of misrule threatens to wreak on public services, and the kind of country he seems intent on creating.

The omens aren’t good: we woke up on Saturday to a fawning interview in the Daily Mail, which confirmed Johnson’s incendiary plans to fix the cost of living crisis by cutting civil service numbers by a fifth, down to levels last seen in 2016.

On my own patch, attempting to cut 20% of the workforce without a monumental and carefully designed change management programme would be a cluster bourach. Working from home accelerated the rollout of a lot of collaborative tools, and dealing with both Brexit and the pandemic has given us a lot of experience in working across silos to get things done. The minister I work for happens to be an actual human being, but my department is already struggling with its workload even after many of those efficiencies – what management wonks insist on calling “low-hanging fruit” – have already been found and priced in. There’s no question that cutting one in five of us would have a devastating impact on public services.

Dismayed tweets and WhatsApp messages have flown around the civil service over the weekend in response to the announcement, which was also condemned by union leaders as dishonest, unrealistic and vindictive. This includes Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, who has asked why Johnson seems to be behaving like P&O Ferries by announcing job cuts through the media.

Several explanations have already been floated. Perhaps he has an actual short-term plan to slash the workforce without somehow also decimating public services. Or maybe these are the first drops of the “hard rain” of civil service reform super-predicted by Dominic Cummings. Or it could be a “dead cat”, in other words a ploy to create headlines to displace #Partygate and other scandals from the front pages.

I don’t believe any of these are correct.

First, Jacob Rees-Mogg has insisted – in a voice originally evolved to cut through the cries of sobbing factory workers – that a 20% cut is a “perfectly reasonable” way of “trying to get back to normal”. What normal? A full pandemic recovery, an already creaking system, and the still-unfolding Brexit shitshow surely require a reimagining of what normal even looks like. Remember those thousands of extra civil servants needed to take on new trade negotiation tasks previously subcontracted to the EU? We still need them, because those tasks are, according to the Institute for Government’s Jill Rutter, a “permanent increase in scope”.

Second, no minister seems to have a clue about how, where or exactly when cuts of those magnitude would be made. When challenged on this on Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday, the Moggster mumbled vaguely about efficiencies and seemed to suggest that cutting Passport Office staff would somehow fix its backlog. No mention of the fact that civil service efficiency has been a decades-long project occupying Labour, coalition and Conservative governments. This includes, by the way, Rishi Sunak’s plans to cut numbers by 5% to pre-pandemic levels as part of last year’s spending review.

Third, while the “dead cat” theory has seduced the likes of rebel-lite Tory MP Tobias Ellwood into suspecting the sticky paws of a Dead Cat Committee – not even Larry, No 10’s resident mouser, believes that. Because this isn’t a distracting side-show; there is clear evidence that this is part of the main event. In December 2020, I wrote about the multipronged campaign of civil service harassment pursued by this government, which escalated in the run-up to Brexit, when “remoaner” civil servants were thrown under the bus as soon as it became obvious that Vote Leave’s promises could not possibly be delivered.

That campaign has never stopped. So when ministers frame £3.75bn of job cuts (which sound reassuringly large to voters but are utterly dwarfed by the hundreds of billions lost to PPE fraud, pandemic loan fraud and Brexit itself) as unlocking a significant tax cut, they are using a well-worn tactic: to divide, conquer, and create what Moya Lothian-McLean calls a miasma of mistrust.

It is a pattern; part of a long-term assault that this government is waging – in plain sight – on our institutions, including the judiciary, public broadcasters, “lefty lawyers” and electoral democracy itself.

To believe that Johnson’s intention to cut 91,000 jobs is a dead cat or the result of daring policy thinking or an example of his reforming zeal is therefore to give him far too much credit. What his government is doing isn’t ideological or even political in the traditional sense, given the absence of any project other than staying in power.

It’s too easy to make fun of Rees-Mogg, the honourable member for the 18th century, as if Bozzymandias and his morale-crushing workhouse prefect are unaware of the growing evidence that flexibility and productivity go hand in hand – the truth is that they simply don’t care.

These cuts may never happen, because they aren’t really the point; they are yet another trial balloon designed to test the public’s acceptance of the continuing expansion of the culture wars that Johnson continues to rely on for his survival.

For now, civil servants will continue to get on with the job, and we’ll hope Penman and his colleagues can keep reminding the public that the average civil servant earns less than £30K, doesn’t work in Whitehall and doesn’t drag suitcases of prosecco into the office.

We aren’t idlers: in fact, we’ve never worked harder or more effectively, or at such personal cost. This proves that, unlike our morally incontinent prime minister, civil servants can be trusted to do the right thing even when someone isn’t looking over our shoulders.

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