From “dysfunctional, inept” Trump to “frail” Corbyn, why is Whitehall getting leakier?
Richard Norton-Taylor/Open Democracy
Whitehall appears to be panicking after years of excessive secrecy and complacency. But leaks are no substitute for effective scrutiny by a functioning parliamentary democracy.
The Whitehall establishment – the permanent government – is fighting back.
The most telling comments about the increasing alarm throughout Whitehall over Brexit and the deep divisions in Britain’s two main political parties came from Sir John Sawers, head of MI6 between 2009 and 2014. Sawers told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week: “We are going through a political nervous breakdown here in the UK.”
I suggest it is Whitehall that is suffering a nervous breakdown. Those responsible for steering the ship of state are staring aghast at the prospect of a wreck.
Sawers placed the blame squarely on politicians. David Cameron, he said, had been “unwise” to call the EU referendum. There was a “lot of anxiety”, he added. “As we leave the European Union we take a huge risk to our international standing, to the strength of the British economy.” Sawers continued: “We have potential prime ministers being elected by the Conservative Party now, [and] in the shape of the leader of the opposition, who do not have the standing that we have become used to in our top leadership.”
Leaks have always been a potent weapon, in the hands of officials as well as their political masters, but Sawers’ remarks offered a clue to why there have been so many leaks of late.
Sawers comments were followed by the astonishing leak of the forthright criticism of the Trump administration by Sir Kim Darroch, our man in Washington, who fell on his sword today saying the leak had made it “impossible” to do his job. Both events followed an article in the Times newspaper, quoting unnamed senior civil servants suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn was “too frail” to become prime minister, “physically and mentally”.
Then Gordon Corera, the BBC’s well-connected security correspondent, reported that Boris Johnson, when foreign secretary, was not allowed to see all sensitive intelligence reports. This was not denied. It was put down to control freakery in Theresa May’s Downing Street. May, a former home secretary, had placed that post above that of foreign secretary in the cabinet’s pecking order. That meant the home secretary rather than the foreign secretary would chair meetings of Cobra, the government’s crisis committee where the latest intelligence is discussed. The suggestion in Whitehall is that sensitive intelligence reports were discussed privately by a small group of ministers and officials – excluding Johnson – and not at the full Cobra meetings. In other words, Johnson could not be trusted with the nation’s innermost secrets.
A power vacuum
Two separate but linked issues are at play – a weak and divided cabinet government leaving a vacuum at the centre of power, and Brexit. With rare exceptions, most senior Whitehall officials like a stable government (preferably one of the “moderate centre” that accepts its advice) and many are hostile to Brexit. British security, intelligence, and police chiefs have all expressed concern about the impact of Brexit on future cooperation with European countries, and in Northern Ireland. Sawers told Daily Telegraph readers during the 2016 EU referendum campaign that as a “lifelong patriot”, he would vote Remain.
In 2017, Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, in a resignation note leaked to the BBC told colleagues: “I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power.” If that leak was designed to embarrass the government and attack Brexit, it provided ammunition to the leading Brexiteer, Nigel Farage. “The Foreign Office needs a complete clear out,” he said. Rogers had already become a target for Brexiteers and their supporters in the media after a separate leak of a memo in which he warned Downing Street that a trade deal with the EU could take as much as 10 years.
Olly Robbins, Theresa May’s top official responsible for negotiating Brexit, has been regularly lampooned by Brexiteers as being too sympathetic to Brussels. Pro-European proclivities of Whitehall mandarins have been made clear by their former colleagues. Lord Kerslake, Labour peer and former head of the Civil Service, has called for a fresh referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Philip Rycroft, the former top official at the department for exiting the EU (DExEU) told BBC Panorama this week (9 July) that a no-deal Brexit was “fraught with risk” and “a step into the unknown” which everyone should be worried about.