Revenge of the Blob: How officials helped topple Boris Johnson

EuroActiv Politico News

LONDON – Boris Johnson just wants to hide. 

While his supporters work to secure his legacy, the British prime minister would rather be anywhere but lingering on in No. 10 now he has announced he’s standing down, according to a person who’s spent time with him this week. 

Johnson’s humiliating downfall was a victory for his Conservative critics who were sick of making excuses for his failings. But it was also a moment of payback for another, quieter part of the British establishment: the civil service. 

For the past six years, the pro-Brexit campaigners Johnson led have blamed the U.K.’s 475,000 permanent government officials — known collectively as Whitehall and required to be politically impartial — for thwarting their efforts to deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum. 

Since Johnson entered Downing Street in July 2019, civil servants have faced a barrage of attacks from his aides and allies, including ministers at the top of government, who have dubbed them “the Blob.”

But on July 5, one Whitehall grandee struck back.

Simon McDonald, the former top mandarin at the Foreign Office, delivered what turned out to be a decisive blow that helped bring the prime minister down. He went public with a claim that Johnson’s Downing Street was lying to cover up how much the PM knew about allegations of sexual assault against Chris Pincher, a minister he appointed. 

“No. 10 keep changing their story and are still not telling the truth,” McDonald wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. Johnson knew all about Pincher’s record and gave him a job anyway, he said. 

It was an explosive claim that dominated the day’s business at Westminster. When Johnson chaired a meeting of his Cabinet that morning, grim-faced ministers could hardly look him in the eye. By the end of the day two Cabinet ministers had quit, and the floodgates were open. A reluctant Johnson was forced to resign 48 hours later. 

According to one official, some civil servants wore broad smiles around the office when the PM finally announced he was leaving. Others were sad to see well-respected ministers like Rishi Sunak leave their departments. 

One thing they agree on is that McDonald’s intervention was seismic. 

“It is rare — maybe unprecedented — for a senior former mandarin to take to the airwaves to insert himself into a live political row,” said Jill Rutter, in a blog post for the Institute for Government. 

Boris Johnson | WPA pool photo by via Daniel Leal Getty Images

One Whitehall insider described widespread amazement at McDonald’s comments. “It was a very significant moment in the week,” the person said. “I think it definitely did have a big impact.”

For some, there was a sense of schadenfreude. “Perhaps it was fitting, in the end, that it was a former permanent secretary, speaking truth to power, who delivered the fatal blow,” said Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, representing senior civil servants. 

McDonald acknowledged that his decision to speak out was “unusual,” but said he felt he had a duty to the victims to reveal the truth. 

War on Whitehall

The breakdown in relations between Tories and civil servants carries major risks for Britain.

It has threatened to undermine relations with other countries, whose diplomats don’t know how far to trust their U.K. counterparts. Domestically, the danger is that ministerial decisions are not implemented and the elected government fails to deliver for voters, while the public loses faith in the system.

“We are all happy that he’s gone,” one senior official said. “That’s mostly because it has been such a damaging period for standards in public life. The institutions we love and have defended for years have basically been trashed.”

The Johnson administration’s war on the civil service has its origins in the Brexit battles that tore U.K. politics apart after the 2016 referendum. 

The Vote Leave campaign was fronted by Johnson and backed by many of his ministers. Its mastermind was Dominic Cummings, the radical reforming adviser who entered No. 10 with Johnson, hell-bent on ripping up Whitehall. 

On the Remain side in 2016 was the full might of the Treasury. Its dire warnings of recession, a surge in unemployment, and a hit to family incomes, were dubbed “Project Fear” and dismissed by Brexiteers as fiction. 

The same Brexiteers cried foul when Theresa May’s chief negotiator Oliver Robbins — a civil servant — brought back a deal with Brussels that kept the U.K. tied too closely to EU rules for their liking. Johnson quit the Cabinet and set in train a series of events that ultimately led to May’s resignation — and his rise to prime minister in 2019. 

Despite winning a hefty election victory and delivering a hard Brexit, Johnson’s government did not ease off its assault on civil servants. 

In fact, Cummings was particularly radical, warning that a “hard rain” was going to fall on Whitehall. He had long wanted to slash departments and abolish the permanent civil service, and he set about hiring “weirdos” and “misfits” to shake up officialdom. 

But the impact of the hostility became toxic. The prime minister complained privately that the civil service was taking too long to deliver his plans and he couldn’t get anything through. Senior officials, meanwhile, said it was impossible to work for Johnson’s team. Some high ranking individuals felt they had no option but to quit, and did.  

“It is an extremely difficult government to work for,” said one, who is still in post. Other experienced senior officials agree. Both of Johnson’s independent ethics advisers have quit.

Johnson eventually recognized things had to change. In September 2020, he appointed Prince William’s top aide Simon Case, then aged 41, to be Cabinet Secretary — the most senior official in government who is in charge of the civil service. 

Case’s pitch for the job rested on a plan to end the war on Whitehall, according to reports. Johnson agreed and the pair set about overhauling Downing Street and repairing relations with the Civil Service. 

For a time, things improved. But this year, as Johnson’s administration was savaged over holding lockdown-breaking parties, the attacks began again. 

Arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is still in the Cabinet, threatened to downgrade or even sack officials who were still working from home after lockdown rules were lifted. 

Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

On July 3, Attorney General Suella Braverman, another Brexit hardliner now standing for the party’s leadership, complained of “battles” with civil servants who have a “Remain bias.” Some are still “unable to conceive of the possibility of life outside of the EU,” she told the Sunday Telegraph

The civil service is not blameless. Case, the cabinet secretary, has been singled out for not doing enough to rein in the excesses of Johnson’s team. The PM’s official spokesman has faced calls to be fired for lying to the press during official government briefings. Privately, some officials admit slow-walking Johnson’s policies. Others say it’s hard to tell the press the truth when the prime minister is lying.

For one former political adviser, the Whitehall wars are a clash between two cultures. Civil servants can be infuriating, the person said, but by nature their job is to be small-c “conservative” and to provide continuity. The Brexiteer government, by contrast, won power promising “a revolution,” the person said.

The Blob

The Cummings-led assault on officialdom began in his time as an adviser to Michael Gove, who became education secretary in 2010. The pair referred to the schools bureaucracy, which included officials and teachers’ unions, as “the Blob,” after a 1950s sci-fi horror movie in which an alien amoeba devours everything in its path. 

Johnson pushed out Cummings in November 2020 and fired Gove on Wednesday night. Now he has resigned, too, and the Blob is back in charge, for the moment at least.

As the walls closed in around the prime minister this week, his advisers discussed triggering a snap election to keep him in office. It was senior members of the civil service who told them that would not be allowed. 

Sir Simon McDonald and Boris Johnson in 2016 | WPA pool photo by Andrew Matthews via Getty Images

Tory grandees — including former prime minister John Major — fretted over what Johnson would do if allowed to stay in Downing Street for months after handing in his notice, fearing a repeat of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s last stand. But Case, the cabinet secretary, has now made clear that no radical new policies will be permitted in Johnson’s final days. 

“During the period of the leadership contest, the work of government continues,” Case wrote in a letter to all civil servants, seen by POLITICO. “The Cabinet agreed yesterday that, rather than initiating new policy or resisting previously agreed positions, the government should focus on delivering the agenda it has already collectively agreed.”

When it comes to the Tory leadership, the civil service is expected to help candidates equally. Once the field of contenders is whittled down to a final pair who will compete for party members’ votes, officials will likely provide factual advice on policies, as they do to opposition parties before general elections. 

Yet even with Johnson leaving, it’s unlikely that Whitehall workers will relax for long. The government plans to cut 91,000 Civil Service jobs. It’s a policy few Tories will campaign to reverse. 

And there are fears that McDonald’s intervention could come back to bite the civil service and has damaged its brand. “A lot of senior officials and former officials thought Simon’s intervention was extraordinary,” one insider said. “It could have very damaging ramifications for the future.”

Whoever it is, the next prime minister will have noticed how Johnson’s war on Whitehall ended — and will want to avoid a similar fate.