Guppy eyes staring blankly, he refused to take the bait: HENRY DEEDES sees a well-rehearsed former Sir Humphrey wear MPs down
Science fiction films often feature impregnable force fields. Sometimes I wonder if there’s one permanently surrounding Whitehall’s snaky mandarins.
For two hours the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee questioned former Cabinet secretary Lord Sedwill yesterday. For two hours, their enquires simply bounced off the ex-Whitehall head honcho like he was encased in radioactive titanium.
With Sedwill free from the political swim, the committee was desperate for some juice on anyone, and anything from his time in the corridors of power – Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Covid. Even boring Brexit. Yet however hard they chipped away, his Lordship doggedly refused to spill the borlotti.
The Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee questioned former Cabinet secretary Lord Sedwill (pictured) for two hours but he wouldn’t take the bait
The only slight clue to Sedwill’s mindset as he stared out of his Zoom screen lay in the large photo behind him. It showed a lifeboat listing to one side as it was engulfed by a huge wave. A metaphor, you might say, for the chaos inside Downing Street since Sedwill’s abrupt departure in June.
A coincidence he’d placed it there? I think not.
Chairman William Wragg (Con, Hazel Grove) kicked things off, zoning straight in on l’affaire Cummings. Did Sedwill have any reflections on last week’s events which saw the PM’s chief adviser and Government director of communications Lee Cain get the boot?
Sedwill gave an insouciant shake off the head. ‘Not really,’ he replied. He observed advisers ‘come and go in government’ as though Cummings and Cain were no more important than the workmen who bled the Downing Street radiators.
Wragg shot his Lordship a wry smile. It’s no secret that relations between him and Cummings were icier than the Cock Bridge to Tomintoul road in January. Bet you anything that once Cummings emerged from No10 on Friday clutching his box of knick-knacks, something fancy was swiftly uncorked chez Sedwill.
Wragg turned to Sedwill’s departure in the summer. The Sir Humphrey insisted he wasn’t sacked. So how did you come to leave, asked Wragg. Sedwill said his exit was ‘voluntary by agreement’.
This sounded suspiciously like one of those human resources terms designed to help executives save face. Barely anyone important gets sacked these days. But do people who leave voluntarily usually get a £250,000 payoff as Sedwill reportedly did? Unfortunately, Wragg chose not to ask.
The subject of governments briefing against civil servants was much discussed. Nav Mishra (Lab, Stockport) asked if it had been worse under the present government or under Theresa May.
Sedwill said if anything it was probably worse under May. He pointed out her Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins was given a torrid time. Poor Nav’s shoulders slumped in disappointment. He was hoping Sedwill would say Boris’s lot were princes of darkness in comparison.
One by one, committee members cast their lines in the hope he might bite. Each time, his guppy eyes stared back blankly, refusing to take the bait. Rachel Hopkins (Lab, Luton S) asked whether the Prime Minister had ever wanted to sack a permanent secretary. Sedwill: ‘Well, I think most Prime Ministers have wanted to.’
Someone asked whether Education Secretary Gavin Williamson should have been sacked during this year’s A-level fiasco rather than his permanent secretary Jonathan Slater (correct answer: Yes). Sedwill stroked his chin like a latter-day Francis Urquhart and said he couldn’t possibly comment.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson shaking hands with Sir Mark Sedwill in 2019 after he accepted the invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to become Prime Minister and form a new government
This was a man well versed in the art of sucking the energy from a room and nullifying his interlocutors. With each question, his answers grew more arcane and waffly. The longer he spoke, the higher the pitch of his voice. Irritating. His predecessor, the late Sir Jeremy Heywood, did the same.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised Whitehall churns out these clones. We train them this way. Years of instruction from men in grey suits plucked from the same chilly gene pool have shaped and honed them in the art of obstruction and deflection. All those mind-numbing strategy meetings. All those self-assessment interviews in which they’re encouraged never to reveal anything about themselves.
After an hour and half, BBC Parliament drew stumps and diverted programming to health questions. Once again, Sir Humphrey had skilfully ground us all into submission.
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