The UK’s most senior civil servant, cabinet secretary Simon Case, has condemned the use of “dehumanising” language to describe the civil service, arguing that it is insulting and unacceptable. Speaking to a cross-party group of MPs, Case criticized ministers who refer to the civil service as the “blob,” stating that such language demonstrates “self-defeating cowardice.” He attributed the strained relationship between public sector staff and ministers to the use of “undermining” language by politicians.
The use of the term “blob” gained attention when Conservative MP Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of failing to repeal remaining EU laws, claiming that “the blob has triumphed and the prime minister has abandoned his promise.” Sir Jake Berry, who briefly served as Conservative chairman under Liz Truss, also blamed the “blob” for Boris Johnson’s resignation as prime minister in June.
Case expressed his disagreement with these characterizations of the civil service and described them as dehumanising. He criticized the insulting language used by government ministers, emphasizing that it is self-defeating to insult the very people who work for and deliver public services on their behalf, especially since civil servants are unable to respond.
Case made these remarks during a session of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which focused on the work of the Cabinet Office. He highlighted an instance where ministers had used improper language, specifically referring to a letter issued in the name of Home Secretary Suella Braverman. The letter criticized “an activist blob of left-wing lawyers, civil servants, and the Labour Party” for obstructing the government’s efforts to prevent small boat crossings into the UK. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Greg Hands, promptly apologized for the letter, while Braverman distanced herself from the language used in it.
While acknowledging that ministers may have legitimate frustrations with the delivery of government policies, Case stressed the importance of using proper channels to address these concerns. He stated that it is not acceptable to publicly use unacceptable language, whether anonymously or named, to denigrate those working hard to deliver public services.
According to Case, the tone in which ministers discuss civil servants in public has changed, with improvement seen under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. He noted that ministers are now more likely to distance themselves from improper language because of its detrimental impact on the government’s work. Last week, Sunak rejected the characterization of civil servants as the “blob wandering down Whitehall, thwarting the ambitions of ministers.” The prime minister also expressed his appreciation for the hard work and diligence of civil servants.
The committee also questioned Case about the departure of Sue Gray from the civil service. Gray had led an investigation into allegations of parties being held in Downing Street in violation of COVID-19 lockdown rules. After resigning as a civil servant, it was revealed that she was considering taking up a position as the Labour leader’s chief of staff. The committee inquired whether Gray’s switch raised concerns about the impartiality of the civil service, particularly in light of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s accusations that her investigation was compromised.
Case responded that some individuals have sought to “weaponize” the Sue Gray case. However, he assured the committee that steps have been taken to ensure the impartiality of the civil service, and that ministers are satisfied with the outcome of the investigation. Gray was cleared by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments in June and is set to commence her role as chief of staff in September.