Mounting anger in Whitehall over the abrupt dismissal of the Treasury’s top official burst into the open today as a former head of the civil service accused Liz Truss of “destabilising” her government impartial advisers.
And another former senior Whitehall mandarin said the sacking of Sir Tom Scholar indicated that Ms Truss and chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng want to surround themselves with “yes men and women”, adding: “That is a sure route to bad decision-making and weak government.”
Lord Wilson – who headed the civil service under Tony Blair – is the third former cabinet secretary to speak out over the sacking of Sir Tom Scholar, who was removed by chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng within days of Ms Truss’s appointment as prime minster.
It came after the new PM railed against supposed “Treasury orthodoxy” during the Conservative leadership campaign, and has kicked off a hunt for a new department head who will back her controversial plan for £30bn of tax cuts largely benefiting the rich and corporations at a time of soaring inflation.
Former Treasury minister Lord Agnew on Tuesday defended the decision to sack Sir Tom, branding him the embodiment of “the malign influence of the Treasury orthodoxy”.
“Whether it was foot-dragging and passive resistance to creating a Treasury office in the north, which he fiercely resisted, or the botched arrangements in the construction of the bounce back loans during the pandemic, all roads led back to him,” said Agnew.
But Lord Wilson – cabinet secretary between 1998-2002 – said such attacks were “ill-judged”.
“To summarily dismiss a key top official, judged by most people to be outstanding, at this moment is destabilising,” he said. “It may affect morale; there has already been a distressing loss of talent over the past decade.”
Attacks by politicians on the civil service were “self-destructive”, he said.
“It looks like an attempt to shift on to institutions the blame for the failure of ministers’ own past policies. Civil servants will implement whatever the government decides, loyally and with energy, as they always have done. This should be a moment for bonding, not attacking.”
Former Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Normington also added his voice to the chorus of mandarin outrage.
Lord Agnew’s broadside “follows an age-old formula – if you cannot get your way in government, attack the civil service and throw in a few slurs about metropolitan elites on the way,” said Sir David, who led the Education Department from 2001-05 and the Home Office until 2011 before being appointed First Civil Service Commissioner.
“The sad fact is that in sacking Sir Tom Scholar, one of the ablest civil servants of his generation, the prime minister and chancellor have sent a clear message to the civil service that they are not interested in impartial advice and intend to surround themselves with `yes’ men and women.
“That is a sure route to bad decision-making and weak government. It is also another small step on the road to politicising the civil service.”
Sir David said it was “disappointing” that current cabinet secretary, Simon Case – who is remaining in post despite earlier indications that Ms Truss wanted to remove him – had “failed to stand up for the values of the civil service” by acquiescing in Scholar’s dismissal.
Former cabinet secretaries Lord O’Donnell and Lord Butler have already voiced their dismay at Sir Tom’s removal, meaning that protests have been made by all but one of those who led he civil service between 1988 and 2012.
Thirty years a civil servant, Sir Tom, 53, worked closely with both Gordon Brown and David Cameron before taking the top Treasury job in 2016.
He served as Mr Brown’s principal private secretary before moving to Washington as the UK representative at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He then worked as chief of staff for the last Labour PM and returned to a senior post at the Treasury at the height of the banking crisis. He was senior adviser on Europe to Mr Cameron.