The Irish Times view on the UK exams row: The latest scapegoats

Although there will be little public sympathy for the mandarins, the remorseless driving out by the Tories’ current leadership of competent people from both the civil service and cabinet will only make government more dysfunctional than it already is

Minister Gavin Williamson, a key aide in Johnson’s personal rise, stays in place. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Minister Gavin Williamson, a key aide in Johnson’s personal rise, stays in place. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

 

Nobody puts it quite like Boris Johnson. Last week the British PM told distraught school pupils that their exam results had been “derailed by a mutant algorithm”. Not, please note, by ministerial or administrative incompetence. But you can’t fire an algorithm, so his administration found and got rid of two scapegoats, the most senior civil servant at the Department for Education, Jonathan Slater, and Sally Collier, head of exams regulator Ofqual.

Minister Gavin Williamson, a key aide in Johnson’s personal rise, stays in place. The pattern is well established. Slater and Collier follow a string of senior officials out the door, an unprecedented series of firings or engineered resignations that upends an important administrative political tradition of ministers taking the rap for civil servants. It has long been seen as key to guaranteeing an independent civil service led by officials willing to advise robustly.

But Johnson chief adviser and Covid-19-rule-breaker Dominic Cummings is having none of it, promising to sweep clear all obstacles to the Tory revolution. In June Cummings, reportedly warned of a “hard rain” hitting the civil service.

Others to face the axe recently include cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, and Foreign Office permanent secretary, Sir Simon McDonald. Sir Philip Rutnam, the home office’s top civil servant is suing after resigning in February, claiming he was the “target of a vicious and orchestrated campaign” coordinated by home secretary, Priti Patel. Richard Heaton, the Ministry of Justice’s permanent secretary will step down this month.

Unions representing civil servants say that many senior officials are looking for ways to jump ship into the private sector before the purge reaches them. And although there will be little public sympathy for the mandarins, the remorseless driving out by the Tories’ current leadership of competent people from both the civil service and cabinet will only make government more dysfunctional than it already is. Eventually the public will notice and a political price will be paid.

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