October 18, 2011 11:45 pm

No room at the top in Whitehall

If the Liam Fox debacle had happened in three months’ time, which of our top mandarins would have been called in by the prime minister and asked to investigate?

A special Whitehall quiz question for you today. If the Liam Fox debacle had happened in three months’ time, which of our top mandarins would have been called in by the prime minister and asked to investigate? Would it have been: a) Jeremy Heywood, the new cabinet secretary; b) Ian Watmore, the new head of the Cabinet Office; or c) A.N. Other permanent secretary who will also take on the role of head of the Home Civil Service? For a bonus point, also explain which of the three will be in charge of top level promotions in Whitehall.

I only ask because the decision to replace Sir Gus O’Donnell, who currently does all these jobs, with three different people is looking increasingly like a messy compromise. Consider. The safe money to be new head of the civil service is on Dame Helen Ghosh, top official at the Home Office, though Sir Suma Chakrabarti, at the Ministry of Justice, is also a runner. But could either of them investigate the propriety – or lack of it – at the Ministry of Defence? What about Mr Watmore? He is likeable and able – as are Dame Helen and Sir Suma – but they would lack the prestige of being cabinet secretary. Harder still to see any of them overseeing the job moves of their fellow permanent secretaries. So will Mr Heywood shoulder these tasks? (Sir Gus sat on interview boards for most top posts. It is time consuming but hugely influential.)

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“If Heywood gets appointments and succession planning, it’ll be game, set and match to Jeremy,” says one senior insider. “I’m afraid the new head of the civil service will be left to open job centres on Friday afternoons.” Hmm. A little unfair, as 75 per cent of civil servants work outside Whitehall and need someone to speak for them. Yet it suggests the new arrangements are muddled. What? Yes, I did ask who would do what but nobody seemed to know.

One final question: who gets the lovely, wood-panelled office that traditionally goes to the cabinet secretary? Nobody knew that either. Mr H already has an office in Number 10, much closer to the PM.

Women winning

Even if the job has been downgraded, the appointment of Dame Helen as the first female head of the Home Civil Service would be a coup. One of Sir Gus’s achievements is that he has “cracked diversity”. Thanks to him, half the top jobs in Whitehall are now held by women.

“I’ve given them some of the fluffy jobs – like defence and the Home Office,” says Sir Gus wryly. When you think about the dismal performance of FTSE 100 companies – only 33 have acted so far on the government’s call to set targets for the number of female directors – Whitehall’s record is impressive indeed. P.S. I’m told one ceiling in the Cabinet Office is boarded up. Its made of glass and, yes, it’s cracked.

Cut-price job ads

Forget all that coalition spin about open government. In reality most ministers hate transparency – particularly when it comes to statistics. The government was asked in the Lords where advertisements have been placed for Sir Michael Scholar’s replacement as chair of the Statistics Authority and what pay was on offer. Answer: the job has been advertised on three nerdy websites with a salary of £71,250 for two and a half days a week.

Labour’s David Lipsey then asked a second, killer question: where were ads placed before the appointment of Sir Michael and what salary was offered. Lord Lipsey was told that ads went in The Sunday Times, The Economist, Western Mail, Wales on Sunday, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Belfast Telegraph and the Public Appointments website. The salary was £150,000 for three days a week. So what is going on?

“This is an attempt to downgrade the role because the authority challenges the government,” says Bernard Jenkin, Tory chairman of the Commons public accounts committee. No doubt. The authority is meant to champion honest statistics on behalf of the public. Ministers wanted Dame Janet Finch to do the job but MPs gave her such a hard time she withdrew amid claims she was a government stooge.

Siren song

The Liberal Democrats are already planning their Christmas party. I hear there’s to be a musical entertainment starring deputy prime minister Nick Clegg singing: “As long as he needs me.”

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