WHITEHALL HANDICAP

WHITEHALL HANDICAP - They're off ... The search for a successor to civil service supremo Sir Richard Wilson is becoming urgent but, with no clear-cut favourite and the possibility that the job could be split up, it's a race of many uncertainities. David W

by DAVID WALKER
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

They're off ... The search for a successor to civil service supremo Sir Richard Wilson is becoming urgent but, with no clear-cut favourite and the possibility that the job could be split up, it's a race of many uncertainities. David Walker studies the form of the most likely runners in a classic that - in the face of reformist zeal - could be the last

Civil service supremo Sir Richard Wilson's last season in charge is proving to be as bittersweet an experience as Sir Alex Ferguson's. The chief of mandarins, who retires later this year, has on the face of it had a good war. The machine ran smoothly, Tony Blair met his connecting flights, the paper-flow in and out of Number 10 did not jam, and the Marines mobilised when they were needed. Maybe that's only to be expected - the job of cabinet secretary was invented during the first world war.

But despite this apparently serene progress, all is not well - like Sir Alex (who can be found at Aintree and Ascot almost as often as Old Trafford), Wilson is discovering that even dead certs don't always finish first. For a start, his political masters have caused headaches - even his great skills as a courtier and manager of the daily routines of power have failed to dampen down the clamour about the prime minister's relations with Gordon Brown. Meanwhile, nosey MPs have been poking around Number 10's domestic arrangements.

But worst of all - every chief exec's nightmare - Wilson's succession planning has gone awry. For weeks now, his minions have been wasting precious bureaucratic time speculating about who will be the next great Whitehall chief. Speculation made all the more intriguing because, perhaps for the first time, there are no hot favourites for the position.

The post of cabinet secretary is a peculiar one whose occupant is immensely powerful and yet horribly weak at the same time. On the one hand he is all-seeing and all-knowing - the secret papers all come across his desk, and he communes regularly with the PM, even holding the fort when the great man is away.

But cabinet secretaries have less direct power than, say, the head of a minor company. Beyond a smallish private office, they have to persuade rather than dictate - they are not called civil servants for nothing. Politicians can be headstrong, vindictive and irrational, and even their fellow permanent secretaries are a stubborn bunch, each a baron in their own departmental fiefdom. 'The cabinet secretary is first among equals, his job is about knowledge and influence much more than power,' says Jonathan Baume, head of civil service union the First Division Association.

The stakes are made even harder to call by the fact that under New Labour the smell of modernisation and reform has begun to hang about the previously cloistered atmosphere of the corridors of power. Until last autumn, the reformers seemed to have the wind in their sails. The June 2001 election in the bag, Blair signed off a substantial reorganisation of the 'centre' itself. Two high achievers with non-standard backgrounds came in. Michael Barber, an education professor who had joined David Blunkett's team at Education and Employment in the first term as a special adviser, was made head of a new Delivery Unit, slap bang next door to the PM's office. Wendy Thompson, who had been a great success as chief executive of Newham council before heading the Best Value team at the Audit Commission, was brought into Number 10 as head of a grandly entitled Office of Public Service Reform, again with a desk within feet of Tony.

Wilson, who took over from Robin Butler (now Lord Butler, president of University College, Oxford) in January 1998, had already got used to a situation where a junior civil servant had more access to Blair than he did. This was Jeremy Heywood, the late-thirtysomething high-flyer who as a Number 10 private secretary made himself court lynch-pin, somewhere between chief of staff Jonathan Powell, spinmeister Alastair Campbell, private office mavens Anji Hunter and Sally Morgan plus, during the first term, David Miliband, head of Blair's private think tank. (Miliband became MP for Hartlepool last June and Hunter moved in November to the lucrative post of head of internal communications at BP.)

But the new units made his life even more difficult. Their heads, Barber and Thompson, both had to have face time with the prime minister but were, as civil servants, notionally under Wilson's wing. When he appeared before the Commons' public administration committee in early November, he tried rather red-facedly to explain what was now a somewhat complex organisation chart.

So his successor will inherit a diminished job. Technically speaking, it is one that could be done by several senior colleagues in other departments. Wilson has some special tasks, such as monitoring the gathering of intelligence and acting as a sort of agony uncle for civil servants with ethical difficulties. But these are informal roles that anyone in the know could do.

This had led to the rumour that Wilson would be the last cabinet sec, and that when he stands down this year, the job will be subsumed or split into several lesser posts. These rumours have been fuelled by the fact that the prime minister himself has been scouting, none too privately, options for divvying up the job into a series of new roles - chief operating officer, minute-taker in chief, Whitehall top dog and so on ...

All of which seems to put the civil service's existing senior prefects in with a fighting chance: the likes of the permanent secretaries at Transport, Sir Richard Mottram, and Work and Pensions, Rachel Lomax. But they have an age problem. A four-year term, the usual minimum, would take them past retirement, still running when they should have been put out to grass. Besides, Mottram has had a trying time lately at Transport and in the way of Whitehall, top officials - fairly or unfairly - get tainted by the political fate of their bosses.

At the other end of the age range, some of the big departments are held by young high achievers, regarded by the cognoscenti as promising novices who have not been in their jobs long enough to make a mark: Robin Young at Trade and Industry, John Gieve at the Home Office and Brian Bender at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for example.

One very senior former mandarin (who was considered for the job last time round) has also been muddying the waters, touring the seminar circuit criticising management in Whitehall. To those who know the code, he is having a go at Wilson. This is Sir Michael Bichard, who won his spurs managing such tough beasts as the sprawling Benefits Agency, but unexpectedly quit in 2000 to become rector at the London Institute, the arts and fashion college.

The official who comes closest to being a clone of Wilson is probably Sir David Omand, formerly permanent secretary at the Home Office. But he has been seriously ill and only recently returned to the fray. Besides, for a government concerned with social services and education, Omand's background as a spook, including heading the spy centre at GCHQ, is none too promising.

But short of asking Wilson to stay on, which would be a huge admission of defeat, Blair has to find a new face. Or faces. Richard Broadbent, chairman of Customs and Excise, has been along to Number 10 to propose a formal split within Wilson's responsibilities and the creation of two or maybe three new jobs. Broadbent recently returned to Whitehall after more than a decade with Schroders - he started at the Treasury - and still has the critical eye of an outsider. But his colleagues are quick to point out that he does not have to deal with flesh-and-blood ministers in his department. One of the peculiarities of civil service positions is managing wayward politicos who often have no experience of organisations and whose eye is forever on the main chance, whether for a headline, a better job or applause at the party conference.

So Broadbent's blueprint may be too coldly rational, proposing as it does the creation of a chief operating officer for the public sector, a cabinet minute-taker and, thirdly, a figurehead for the public sector who would mind about morale and ethics. But if Blair were tempted, who on earth might fill the roles?

The obvious place to go for a business-inspired model is the private sector. Adair Turner, at present an unpaid adviser at Number 10, is one, Sir Howard Davies at the FSA another. But both of them are public figures. Would they want to enter a hothouse where proximity to Blair is the only currency? Could they make the machine of state tick, without massive frustration?

As for business types, recent political history shows how unhappy they can be on taking executive positions in the senior public service. 'Some parts of the civil service can be run on private-sector lines, but not all,' says First Division Association's Baume. 'At the very top level it is all about politics, and managing politics is very different from managing a business.'

Whatever happens, it's a racing certainty that Tony Blair will call the shots and there won't be much public debate, despite the symbolic importance of the position.

Blair is consulting business buddies, among them John Browne of BP, Chris Haskins, Martin Taylor (WH Smith) and milords Simon and Sainsbury. John Birt, ex-DG of the BBC, has an unpaid part-time position in the Forward Strategy Unit in Number 10 and has lately been blue-sky pontificating about transport. But it has been hard to pin the PM down. 'It's like he is still in chambers,' says a Downing Street resident, referring to Blair's career as a barrister. 'The chief clerk comes in, gives him the brief and goes out again. What happens beyond the partition doesn't interest him.'

So I wouldn't bother making a cold call for any of these positions just yet. Who will be first past the post, if anybody, and what exactly they will win depends not just on Blair focusing on the nitty-gritty of government but getting used to some new and challenging faces in his entourage.

< the="" runners="" sir="" howard="" davies,="" chairman,="" financial="" services="" authority.="" adair="" turner,="" former="" director-general,="" cbi.="" michael="" barber,="" head="" of="" delivery="" unit,="" number="" 10;="" former="" special="" adviser,="" department="" for="" education="" and="" employment.="" sir="" michael="" bichard,="" rector="" of="" london="" institute;="" former="" permanent="" secretary="" at="" the="" dfee.="" richard="" broadbent,="" chairman,="" board="" of="" customs="" and="" excise.="" sir="" david="" omand,="" former="" permanent="" secretary="" at="" the="" home="" office;="" former="" head="" of="" gchq.="" wendy="" thompson,="" head="" of="" office="" for="" public="" service="" reform,="" number="" 10;="" former="" head="" of="" best="" value,="" audit="" commission.="" jeremy="" heywood,="" civil="" servant,="" prime="" minister's="" private="" secretary.="" rachel="" lomax,="" permanent="" secretary,="" department="" of="" work="" and="" pensions.="" sir="" richard="" mottram,="" permanent="" secretary="" at="" the="" department="" of="" transport.="" outsiders="" john="" gieve:="" former="" treasury="" official,="" now="" permanent="" secretary="" at="" the="" home="" office.="" could="" be="" blair's="" fixer="" if="" cabinet="" secretary="" job="" is="" split.="" robin="" young:="" dti="" permanent="" secretary.="" well="" liked="" by="" whitehall="" and="" the="" business="" community.="" brian="" bender:="" permanent="" secretary,="" defra="" since="" 2000.="" prominent="" during="" last="" year's="" foot-and-mouth="" outbreak.="">

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