Bernard Ingham: Mutiny of the mandarins and the plight of a Premier

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OUR mandarins are getting restive. It seems they are quitting in droves, even though their bonuses perversely rise while those of some bankers fall.

Inevitably, the row over bonuses laps ever more at their door with Ministers in a twist over who can do what to whose payments in Network Rail and the Student Loans Company.

All this is, however, but a straw in the wind. The mandarinate, represented by the First Division Association, recorded the highest vote in the public sector for a strike over pensions reform.

They had a rotten 13 years under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they were often sidelined. Things are better for them under the coalition, but no one would argue that the relationship between civil service and Ministers is yet broadly right.

This is partly because of the rot under weak leadership over the past 15 years. Four Cabinet Secretaries – Robin Butler, Richard Wilson, Andrew Turnbull and Gus O’Donnell, all of whom I worked with – failed to ensure good governance in the Blair/Brown era.

This led to the effective politicisation of the Government Information Service, sofa and crony government, Dr David Kelly, the deception that took us into the Iraq war, an utterly idiotic energy policy and gross overspending with the resultant crash.

You do not get the feeling that the traditional – and effective – relationship between Ministers, who decide, and officials, who weightily advise, has been restored. And where there is doubt about their roles and the respect each has for the other, any government can soon look ragged. It takes two to tango.

We are often told the official machine is not good enough – and there is some justification for this in the handling of big contracts since a new “leadership school” is being introduced to teach them how.

It should be no consolation that our machine is nonetheless probably better than most. It could hardly be worse than in the EU where the unelected Commission, curiously mostly failed politicians, is in control, running the show incompetently and at vast expense and with even the right to initiate legislation.

In Greece and Italy elected politicians have been replaced by unelected technocrats through the sheer pressure of elected politicians – you couldn’t make it up – desperate to appease the money markets and preserve the euro.

And now 25 of the 27 EU member-states have hijacked the institutions of the EU to enforce the rules of the single currency with a treaty David Cameron says is outside the EU.

This ingenious argument over when an EU treaty is not an EU treaty is out of the top drawer of the Europhile Foreign Office which has always been a problem in this area.

The ploy is presumably to deny us again a referendum. Cameron says the only justification for a referendum would be the transfer of further sovereignty to Brussels, but since he has no intention of ceding more powers and this, in any case, is not an EU treaty, nothing has changed.

Oh no?

After initially vetoing all this because he could not get assurances that the eurozone would not tinker with the single market to our disadvantage, Cameron, technically a Eurosceptic, caved in, no doubt because he was afraid of being blamed for the collapse of the euro.

He returned from Brussels with no assurances whatsoever that the 25 would not work against us. All he is left with is the risible idea that, if the EU tramples on our interests, he will sue, presumably in the European Court of Justice, as distinct from the European Court of Human Rights, of Abu Qatada infamy.

This is about as reassuring as hoping your executioner has run out of guillotine blades, rope, electric chairs and knock-out drops. The Euro-Court is as much a part of the EU integrationist power building machine as the Commission.

So what does all this mean?: Four things: First, Cameron, recently a hero, looks duplicitous and weak. Second, we are at the mercy of a EU machine that is desperate to save the single currency and with a fierce determination to extend its sway and little regard for the niceties of democracy. Third, the case for an EU referendum has been immeasurably strengthened, as events will demonstrate.

This is what comes of a nation that loses its internal balance of power. So, fourth, we have urgent need for an independent and confident mandarinate which helps politicians to bring some consistency to the running of the nation and the great issues of the day.