It’s no longer “Yes Minister” in Whitehall — a more realistic picture of the interaction between bureaucrats and ministers in the build-up to the EU referendum is “No Minister”.
In a reversal of sorts of the theme of “Yes Minister”, Britain’s iconic political television series, a piquant situation has arisen after bureaucrats were told by the Cabinet secretary not to show documents related to European Union, brief or help write speeches by six ministers favouring the country’s exit from the EU.
The David Cameron’s government official position is that Britain should remain in the 28-member bloc. Following this position, bureaucrats in departments headed by the six ministers have been told to deny any help to them to make the Brexit case.
Called the “Gang of Six”, the ministers are Priti Patel, Iain Duncan-Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, John Whittingdale and Theresa Villiers. Cameron lifted the obligation of “collective responsibility” to enable ministers to take different positions before the June 23 referendum.
As Duncan-Smith asked bureaucrats to ignore the directive and others claimed it was “unconstitutional”, his cabinet colleague, foreign secretary Philip Hammond, defended the order. The pro-Brexit ministers alleged officials cannot be used for pro-EU “propaganda”.
But Hammond said: “Whitehall civil servants and Whitehall papers are produced in support of the government’s position on an issue. Now, those ministers who want to argue another case are being allowed to do so but the civil service can’t support them in doing that.”
He added: “They’ll have to find their own external support to do that and the Leave campaign will provide them with that capability.”
Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood told MPs that far from being unconstitutional, the civil service is upholding its primary role of carrying out government policy: “What my letter does is put flesh on the bones of the prime minister’s own letter of the January 11 saying the government would have a position on this subject.”
There are fears the impasse will lead to stalling of work in the six departments before the referendum.