Boris Johnson Launches War on U.K.’s Own ‘Deep State’

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LONDON — She is accused of flinging a folder at an aide, hitting the staffer in the head. She reportedly told another offending underling to “get out of my face” and castigated her staff as “useless,” adding an f-bomb for good measure.

The allegations of abusive behavior by Home Secretary Priti Patel — all of which she denies — have made her a lightning rod in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new cabinet, a ready-made villain for critics who accuse this hard-line Brexit government of running roughshod over British customs and institutions.

But when a respected career civil servant resigned last week because of what he claimed was a “vicious and orchestrated” campaign against him by Ms. Patel, what began as a juicy boss-from-hell story turned into a metaphor for Mr. Johnson’s broader tensions with Britain’s much vaunted civil service.

The feud between a populist leader and an entrenched bureaucracy carries echoes of the Trump administration’s war on what the president and his allies call the “deep state.” In Britain, Mr. Johnson’s scruffy, iconoclastic adviser Dominic Cummings plays the role of Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s one-time in-house provocateur.

In this case, the civil servant, Philip Rutnam, who served as the permanent secretary in the Home Office, said Ms. Patel’s behavior was part of a pattern of bullying civil servants that needed to be called out. His mutiny came as Mr. Cummings is moving aggressively to shake up the bureaucracy, seeking to inject new people — especially ones with the math and science skills he considers lacking in senior civil servants — and rooting out those he deems hostile to Brexit.

“Civil servants are under a lot of pressure,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government, a think tank in London. “There is an intolerant tone in this government of, ‘You’re on our side or you’re not.’ The impartiality of the civil service is under question in a way that it hasn’t been.”

With Mr. Rutnam’s bitter public exit, which he promised to follow with a lawsuit against the Home Office, a feud that had been brewing behind closed doors spilled into the open. It was a startling break with decorum for the civil service, in which disputes are worked out privately and officials like Mr. Rutnam shun the limelight.

So far, Mr. Johnson has backed up Ms. Patel, who is a loyal political ally and a full-throated advocate for his project of leaving the European Union. As home secretary, her mandate includes overhauling Britain’s immigration system to implement a points-based system for admitting foreigners.

Among Mr. Rutnam’s offenses, people with knowledge of the situation said, was warning Ms. Patel how unrealistic it was to set up such a system in less than 10 months. While Ms. Patel has few defenders outside Mr. Johnson’s party — and faces a government investigation of her conduct — even her critics said they understood the pressures she faced, as the leader of a front-line ministry in a government that is carrying out radical changes in the name of getting Brexit done.

ImagePhilip Rutman speaking before the Home Affairs Committee in Parliament last month.
Credit…Parliamentary Recording Unit

Moreover, Mr. Johnson’s aides are probably not wrong to suspect that on balance, most civil servants would have preferred that Britain never left the European Union. Many are weary after serving Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, who promised to deliver Brexit but went about it in a chaotic and contradictory way that sowed confusion in the bureaucracy.

“Cummings is right to think it’s a problem,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “But if he was going to get rid of them, he would have to sack the entire civil service, because in their hearts, they believe that leaving the European Union was a bad idea.”

New prime ministers, Mr. Powell said, typically come into office determined to overhaul the civil service — and they typically fail.

In 1997, Mr. Blair and his aides were convinced that after 18 years of Conservative Party rule, the civil service would be implacably hostile to his Labour Party agenda. In 1999, he complained about the “scars on my back” from two years of battling with Britain’s public sector, a broader category that includes teachers, doctors and other public employees.

But Mr. Powell said that to his surprise, the civil service showed an almost preternatural capacity to fall in behind its new masters.

“We thought they would be Tories,” he said. “In fact, they bent over backward to carry out our manifesto.”

Such a lack of partisanship is one of the defining characteristics of Britain’s civil service, which encompasses roughly 450,000 people who work in the upper and middle levels of government agencies from the Treasury to the Ministry of Defense.

Chosen through a competitive exam process, civil servants pride themselves on their skill in pulling the levers of government and in offering unvarnished advice to a changing cast of politically appointed ministers.

That is a notable difference from the United States, where political appointees fill out the top ranks of most agencies. President Trump famously distrusted appointees who were held over from the Obama administration as well as high-level civil servants and moved to get rid of them.

The political agnosticism of British civil servants is so celebrated that in the popular comic TV series, “Yes, Minister,” about a permanent secretary and his minister, the government’s party affiliation is never even mentioned.

The show, which starred Nigel Hawthorne as the civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, mined comic gold out of his masterful handling of his boss, portraying him as wily, quick-witted and cheerfully Machiavellian as he blocked ill-conceived projects.

“Ministers,” Sir Humphrey cracked at one point, “are like small children. They act on impulse.”

But even advocates for the civil service acknowledge its shortcomings. Along with being nonpartisan, civil servants are, by tradition, not held accountable for the performance of their departments or agencies. That can complicate their relationship with hard-driving ministers like Ms. Patel.

Defenders of Mr. Rutnam, the permanent secretary who clashed with her, said he was unflappable, honest and diligent. But others pointed to problems during his tenure at the Home Office, which became embroiled in a scandal over the wrongful deportation of Caribbean immigrants, and in his previous post in the Department for Transport, which has struggled to coordinate Britain’s semiprivatized rail industry.

Educated at Cambridge and Harvard, but virtually invisible until he went before cameras last week to deliver his emotional resignation, Mr. Rutnam was a civil servant out of central casting.

To Mr. Cummings, that is the problem. In a blog post in January, he complained that the civil service had too many “Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers and spread fake news about fake news.” (Never mind that Mr. Cummings studied ancient and modern history at Oxford.)

Emboldened after the Conservative Party’s thumping victory in the general election last December, Mr. Cummings has said he wants a broader overhaul of the civil service. He posted a recruiting call for data analysts, software developers, economists, and the like, to work as political advisers and “maybe as officials.”

Mr. Cummings also sought out “weirdos and misfits” — an invitation that boomeranged when one of his hires, Andrew Sabisky, was forced to resign after the disclosure that he said black people have a lower IQ than whites, and that enforced contraception could prevent “creating a permanent underclass.”

Experts said there was merit to Mr. Cummings’s drive for what he calls “genuine cognitive diversity.” Martin Stanley, a former civil servant who has written extensively on the subject and started a website devoted to it, said that while it had greatly improved its gender and ethnic diversity, it remained “too much of a club,” an institution where you could identify, from the first day, the people who would rise to the top.

Still, for all the furor over Ms. Patel’s clash with Mr. Rutnam, Mr. Stanley said the bigger danger was the tendency of civil servants to function as “courtiers,” appeasing their ministers rather than challenging them. That is a difficult characteristic to root out, he said, since ministers tend to like courtiers.

Critics of Mr. Cummings said his campaign was less about encouraging intellectual ferment than enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy. Mr. Johnson triggered the resignation of his top finance minister, Sajid Javid, last month after insisting that he get rid of advisers whom he and Mr. Cummings distrusted.

The Treasury, traditionally a power center in British government, is now being largely subjugated to Mr. Johnson’s office. There are no members of Mr. Johnson’s cabinet who are not dedicated Brexiteers.

“By U.K. standards,” Mr. Stanley said, “we have an increasingly presidential setup bent on centralized command and control.”

Anna Joyce contributed reporting

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