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From “dysfunctional, inept” Trump to “frail” Corbyn, why is Whitehall getting leakier?

Whitehall appears to be panicking after years of excessive secrecy and complacency. But leaks are no substitute for effective scrutiny by a functioning parliamentary democracy.

Richard Norton-Taylor
10 July 2019
Whitehall and Downing Street street signs
Whitehall has been beset by increasing leaks in recent weeks.
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Rights: Geograph.

The Whitehall establishment – the permanent government – is fighting back.

The most telling comments about the increasing alarm throughout Whitehall over Brexit and the deep divisions in Britain’s two main political parties came from Sir John Sawers, head of MI6 between 2009 and 2014. Sawers told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week: "We are going through a political nervous breakdown here in the UK.”

I suggest it is Whitehall that is suffering a nervous breakdown. Those responsible for steering the ship of state are staring aghast at the prospect of a wreck.

Sawers placed the blame squarely on politicians. David Cameron, he said, had been "unwise" to call the EU referendum. There was a “lot of anxiety”, he added. “As we leave the European Union we take a huge risk to our international standing, to the strength of the British economy.” Sawers continued: "We have potential prime ministers being elected by the Conservative Party now, [and] in the shape of the leader of the opposition, who do not have the standing that we have become used to in our top leadership.”

Leaks have always been a potent weapon, in the hands of officials as well as their political masters, but Sawers’ remarks offered a clue to why there have been so many leaks of late.

Sawers comments were followed by the astonishing leak of the forthright criticism of the Trump administration by Sir Kim Darroch, our man in Washington, who fell on his sword today saying the leak had made it "impossible" to do his job. Both events followed an article in the Times newspaper, quoting unnamed senior civil servants suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn was “too frail” to become prime minister, “physically and mentally”.

Then Gordon Corera, the BBC’s well-connected security correspondent, reported that Boris Johnson, when foreign secretary, was not allowed to see all sensitive intelligence reports. This was not denied. It was put down to control freakery in Theresa May’s Downing Street. May, a former home secretary, had placed that post above that of foreign secretary in the cabinet’s pecking order. That meant the home secretary rather than the foreign secretary would chair meetings of Cobra, the government’s crisis committee where the latest intelligence is discussed. The suggestion in Whitehall is that sensitive intelligence reports were discussed privately by a small group of ministers and officials – excluding Johnson – and not at the full Cobra meetings. In other words, Johnson could not be trusted with the nation’s innermost secrets.

A power vacuum

Two separate but linked issues are at play – a weak and divided cabinet government leaving a vacuum at the centre of power, and Brexit. With rare exceptions, most senior Whitehall officials like a stable government (preferably one of the “moderate centre” that accepts its advice) and many are hostile to Brexit. British security, intelligence, and police chiefs have all expressed concern about the impact of Brexit on future cooperation with European countries, and in Northern Ireland. Sawers told Daily Telegraph readers during the 2016 EU referendum campaign that as a “lifelong patriot”, he would vote Remain.

In 2017, Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, in a resignation note leaked to the BBC told colleagues: "I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power." If that leak was designed to embarrass the government and attack Brexit, it provided ammunition to the leading Brexiteer, Nigel Farage. “The Foreign Office needs a complete clear out,” he said. Rogers had already become a target for Brexiteers and their supporters in the media after a separate leak of a memo in which he warned Downing Street that a trade deal with the EU could take as much as 10 years.

Olly Robbins, Theresa May’s top official responsible for negotiating Brexit, has been regularly lampooned by Brexiteers as being too sympathetic to Brussels. Pro-European proclivities of Whitehall mandarins have been made clear by their former colleagues. Lord Kerslake, Labour peer and former head of the Civil Service, has called for a fresh referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Philip Rycroft, the former top official at the department for exiting the EU (DExEU) told BBC Panorama this week (9 July) that a no-deal Brexit was “fraught with risk” and “a step into the unknown” which everyone should be worried about.

The Darroch dispatches

A leak inquiry may or may not answer the question of who was responsible for the most devastating leak, that of the Darroch dispatches. In leaked emails to London, Darroch (himself a former UK ambassador to the EU) described Trump’s White House as "inept", insecure and incompetent, "uniquely dysfunctional" and "divided".

"We don't really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction-riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept”, warned Darroch. The Foreign Office abandoned Whitehall’s usual policy of never commenting on leaks by saying the public expected diplomats to provide ministers with an "honest, unvarnished assessment" of politics in their country. "Their views are not necessarily the views of ministers or indeed the government”, a spokesman added, “but we pay them to be candid”. Candid but in secret.

In contrast to the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, Johnson declined to say he would back Darroch if he became prime minister - a moot point now that Darroch has resigned.

The Darroch material was revealed in the Mail on Sunday under the byline of Isabel Oakeshott, a journalist with close contacts among hardline Brexiteers. Many have surmised that the leaker’s motive was to damage Darroch, regarded as the epitome of the Whitehall establishment, a professional Foreign Office diplomat to boot, and force him to make way for a political appointment by Boris Johnson. Alternatively, it may have been a misguided attempt, perhaps via hostile state hacking, to sabotage the US-UK “special relationship”.

This is a battle of leaks and counter leaks in place of government. Leaks are symptom of official secrecy, of the failure of politicians too frightened, in this case, to have a serious and honest debate over the merits and disadvantages of EU membership (and explode the myths perpetuated among others by Johnson when he was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels). Whitehall officials wanted to have their cake and eat it. They wanted Britain to remain in the EU club but at the same time change, or at least bend, the rules. They were happy for ministers and backbench MPs to play to the anti-Brussels gallery assuming that such rhetoric would blow away in the end. They have had their comeuppance.

Brexiteers chide their opponents for trying to sabotage the EU referendum which they describe as the biggest democratic exercise in British history (though as David Davies, the former minister for Brexit, once pointed out, democracy did not end on June 23, 2016). Myths and fearmongering were perpetuated by both sides during the referendum campaign. During the campaign I heard people, people who did not vote in general elections because of what they regarded as a predictable result in their constituency, people excited by the idea that their individual vote would actually count in a nation-wide referendum, say that Britain should take a break from “parliamentary democracy”. Excessive official secrecy, the suppression of debate by political leaders in cahoots with a complacent – and dare I say elitist – Whitehall establishment has come back to haunt them. They have become hostages to leaks. And leaks are no substitute for effective scrutiny by a functioning parliamentary democracy.

The State of Secrecy, by Richard Norton-Taylor, will be published by IB Tauris early next year.

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