December 14, 2010 11:06 pm

PM to be Godless in Downing Street

UK cabinet secretary G.O.D. set to step down

Looks like David Cameron has lost his battle to keep GOD by his side for another couple of years.

The prime minister is keen for Sir Gus O’Donnell, cabinet secretary and head of the home civil service, to stay and see the coalition through to the halfway mark of a five year term.

Now it seems that Sir Gus, who signs Whitehall papers with his initials G.O.D., is likely to step down at the end of 2011. Over a lunch of delicately-spiced chicken and excellent white wine, a senior Whitehall figure tells me: “Gus isn’t 60 until 2012 and Cameron really wanted him to stay on but apparently he’s said no. What I hear is that his wife wants him to go sooner rather than later.”

If there is one person more influential with Sir Gus than the PM it must be Melanie, his wife – the two celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary last year.

When he does go, the likeable, classless Sir Gus will be a hard act to follow. Two names are foremost in the frame as potential successors. One is 51-year- old Sir Suma Chakrabati, top official at the Ministry of Justice.

“He’s let it be known that he would be interested in taking over and Cameron might relish having someone with an ethnic background in Whitehall’s top job,” said my lunch date. “But there is also Jeremy Heywood.”

Mr H, who will be 49 on New Year’s eve, is permanent secretary at Number 10. He worked for Tony Blair and sorted out Gordon Brown’s chaotic private office. Some note that he has never run a big department, traditionally an essential qualification for a cabinet secretary. “True,” said my lunch companion, “but does it really matter? Right now Jeremy is a favourite with just about everybody in the coalition.”

Eric Bloodaxe

Following this week’s council cuts you would think that Eric Pickles, the local government minister, was living up to the reputation of his namesake Eric Bloodaxe, the 10th century king of York. I’m not so sure. Back in June our Eric wrote to local councils inveighing against their fat cat salaries and demanding that they publish full details of their pay and perks. They seem to have ignored him – certainly as far as their pension pots go.


My local council, Westminster, has nine people with pension pots of about £1m or more. Imagine how many there must be nationwide. Independent pensions expert John Ralfe says Westminster has posted these details “in an obscure document which few punters are likely to read” and he adds: “The size of pension pots is not normally disclosed in local council accounts. Their level of disclosure is much less than in Whitehall, which shows nitty gritty details. Local councils should be required to follow Whitehall’s lead.” Amen to that. Come on our Eric – blood not words.

Tough at the top

Whitehall is ruthless on pay. When Lin Homer moves from heading the UK Border Agency to be top official at the transport department she is set to take a huge pay cut of £40,000, going from a pay scale of £205,000-£209,999 to one of £160,000-£164,999. Take note our Eric – thats how to make a bureaucrat’s eyes water.


The whip round for Home Office mandarin Sir David Normington’s leaving present nearly broke the bank. Sir David, who bows out as the Home Office top official at the end of this month, has served eight cabinet ministers as permanent secretary. Colleagues planned to commission from Gerald Scarfe a cartoon with caricatures of Sir David and his erstwhile political masters. Alas! Mr Scarfe said he would be happy to oblige – but did they realise he charged £5,000 for each head caricatured, a total of £45,000?

The Scarfe offer was turned down. Instead, knowing Sir David’s love of cricket, they commissioned Gary Barker, who does cartoons for the BBC, to draw Sir David hitting a six with former Labour home secretaries Charles Clarke bowling, John Reid as wicket-keeper and David Blunkett as umpire. Other politicians fielded. I’m told the cost was around £1,000, far more modest.

Among guests at Sir David’s leaving party last week was his friend Sir Leigh Lewis, top official at the Department for Work and Pensions. The two joined the civil service – the old employment department – on the same day in 1973 and will leave on the same day.

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