Mission Impossible – Sir Richard Wilson 1998–2002
On 3 July 1997 Robin Butler reported to the Prime Minister the results of a consultation with selected Permanent Secretaries1 over who should succeed him in the combined roles of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service. There were three names on the paper, each annotated with Butler’s judgement on suitability. His recommendation was for the then Permanent Secretary at the Home Office (HO), Sir Richard Wilson, who: ‘made his reputation as Head of the Economic Secretariat in the Cabinet Office when the quality of his intellect, his persuasiveness and his skill in chairmanship enabled him to take the lead in calling in and resolving a succession of knotty issues over which Ministers and Departments were floundering.’2 Wilson was presented publicly as the next Cabinet Secretary on 1 August 1997, five months before the handover from Butler, as: ‘a modernising force in preparing the Civil Service for the challenges of the 21st Century.’3 ‘Why me? You cannot be less like me,’ he asked Butler; ‘Perhaps because you are the opposite to me,’ was Butler’s reply. In a number of ways the appointment broke the mould. Trend, Hunt, Armstrong and Butler all had strong Treasury and central private office experience. None was closely associated with what Treasury officials disparagingly called ‘spending departments’ whereas Wilson had
(DEn). It was true that from May 1990 to June 1992 he had been in the Treasury as a Deputy Secretary on industrial policy, but he had not felt that he contributed a great deal – his Treasury colleagues were so good that there was little to be added to their work. His Final Selection Board (FSB) for entry into the fast stream of the civil service had been contradictory: the examiners were put off by his gangly figure, yet attracted by his enthusiastic energy, commenting: ‘The more he is pressed, the more cheerful he becomes.’ He came out joint second in the competition despite comments at the FSB that: ‘He is a good, though not exceptional, candidate.’4 However, this grudging recognition was soon disproved as, once in the thick of the action, Wilson was consistently seen as a high-flyer in the DTI and the DEn where the maverick ex-Treasury Permanent Secretary Sir Kenneth Couzens annotated Wilson’s annual appraisal with: ‘The Secretary of State (Mr Walker)5 has entire confidence in him and like me, sees him as a future Permanent Secretary.’ Early in his career he was a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee’s Assessment Staff during the Heath administration, where he shone as an economic analyst. A paper in 1972 on the prospects for the rice harvest in Vietnam and its implications for the Viet Cong’s military campaign had greatly impressed the then Cabinet Secretary, Burke Trend.6 Though his private office experience was not deep and he had never worked in 10 Downing Street, Wilson made his name as a senior official handling Margaret Thatcher (when head of the Economic Secretariat in the Cabinet Office 1986-90) and Michael Howard (when PUS at Environment (DOE) 1992-94 and at the Home Office 1994-98). In particular, under Robin Butler’s hands-off approach he made a name as a Whitehall fixer, able to turn political ideas into practical policies. Earlier he had been private secretary to two Ministers of State and to a Parliamentary Secretary, but the Secretary of State, Tony Benn, had turned him down for private office in Energy on the grounds that, educated at Radley and Cambridge, he appeared to be too much an establishment figure. Benn preferred Bryan Emmett, a grammar school boy from Tadcaster who had started out as a clerical officer in the Ministry of Labour and National Service in 1959. Then, in 1976, the Department of Energy put Wilson forward as a candidate to succeed Nick Stuart, the Harrovian private secretary in Number 10 who dealt with Parliamentary business including preparing the Prime Minister for the twice-weekly Prime Minister’s Questions. Wilson was not interviewed and heard nothing back until he learned that Jim Callaghan had selected another grammar school boy, Nigel Wicks, who served there until 1978 and became Principal Private Secretary to Thatcher from 1985-88. Most people who worked with Wilson were impressed by his emotional intelligence, general openness and commitment to fairness in his dealings. A few found him less straightforward when Cabinet Secretary – Richard Packer, for instance, commented in this way in his memoir The Politics of BSE.7 But part of this could be Packer’s anger at his treatment over the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic and, as many have pointed out, high office sometimes
Secretary from the DOE to the Home Office in June 1992 when Michael Howard became Home Secretary. Howard wanted Wilson’s help in improving the relationship between Ministers and their officials; at that time the Home Office still had a reputation for pursuing departmental policies independent of Ministers. At the DOE Wilson had started a large programme of change to respond to environmental issues but had had to leave at the point of their implementation to follow Howard to the Home Office. There he acted swiftly and decisively to move a number of powerful departmental barons so as to improve responsiveness to Howard’s policies. Tony Blair saw Wilson as promising a fresh approach to reform, untainted by the inertia he judged to be the main problem with civil servants.8 Wilson saw the challenge as bringing the civil service round to a new way of working with a new breed of politician, yet preserving the eternal verities of collective government. He was heir to a tradition where paper brought precision and was to be preferred over the informal discussion practised among members of the inner circle around Blair.9 In his memoirs Blair commented that: ‘. . . to be fair [Wilson] got behind [Civil Service reform] thoroughly. But – and this is a criticism of me, not him or the Civil Service – they were like many other reforms: talking the right language but shying away from the really radical measures.’10 What those radical measures were could be hard to fathom and judgements were often made on the basis of if it was not hurting enough then it could not be for real.11 Blair and Wilson had first met on January 16 1996 at an informal dinner in Notting Hill hosted by Roy Jenkins12 and attended by Butler’s potential successors. He had sat next to Blair and had an extended conversation about modernisation of government. He was a proven moderniser. However, on that first (wet) Monday as Cabinet Secretary, January 5 1998, Wilson recalls being summoned to see Blair around lunch time when the Prime Minister had a list of half a dozen or so things to discuss. The main one was welfare reform where, unrealistically, Blair wanted to know by the end of January what would be the conclusions of the recently launched Welfare Review. Wilson also recalled that other topics included Ireland, the Euro, candidates for the Presidency of the European Commission and how to get across the government’s economic message. He took away the clear impression that the Prime Minister wanted to receive early warning of decisions that the government would need to make but there was no mention of management or civil service reform. Blair had not been a Minister before he became Prime Minister and the management of large and complex organisations was new to most of his colleagues. This brought certain strengths in not being beholden to the past but it carried significant risks – notably over the legal powers and finance Parliament gives to individual Secretaries of State, who are then accountable to it. The Prime Minister’s power comes from patronage in appointing Ministers and political importance as the leader of a ruling Party. But Blair wanted a more hands-on role, with direction set from Downing Street to be followed by Secretaries of State. As some holders of the office before him he could be irked by the independence
particularly those associated with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Though the fall-out from the fractured relationship between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor deteriorated over time, this was a major complication for Wilson and his team even during the first term of government.13 Downing Street looked to Wilson to compensate by holding the Permanent Secretaries to account through pay, deployment and bonuses. In this model the Secretaries of State looked after the politics (i.e. media and campaigning) within the confines of a communications grid plot controlled by Number 10 and helped in a policy-making process again controlled by Number 10. Delivering results from these policies was down to Wilson and the Permanent Secretaries driving the delivery agenda. It was a flawed model given the British constitution and the Cabinet Secretary’s position. Further, Wilson’s natural style was collaborative; his loyalty to the Prime Minister and belief in the general civil service omerta code meant that he refrained from mobilising his Permanent Secretary colleagues sufficiently. Few knew of the tough advice on the nature of power that he was giving to the Prime Minister.14 Also, he could not rely on a favourable wind from Permanent Secretaries who had their own relationship with their Ministers to consider, especially as Ministers in the Brown camp could be particularly difficult to influence by a Cabinet Secretary whom they saw as a ‘Blairite’. ‘What Tony wants’ was a rallying cry used by Special Advisers (SPADS) at many interdepartmental meetings. But could they be trusted to be really speaking for Blair? Ministers or SPADS might add their own gloss or slip in their own pet ideas. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff described Downing Street as: ‘a court and not the HQ of a multinational corporation.’15 How would a ‘Brownite’ Minister be likely to respond? Downing Street often referred to a desire for a tighter command and control system without sufficient regard to the personal dynamics at the top. From the Cabinet Office David Omand wrote to Geoff Mulgan, the Head of the Performance Improvement Unit in Downing Street, quoting Rupert Smith, the deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who defined military command and control as: ‘I as the Commander am responsible for both but I only do command. It is the function of the chief of staff and the headquarters to do my control for me . . . As a general rule, the further away you are from the point of execution in time and space, the less likely you are to know all the facts and figures, and therefore you can’t give any kind of detailed orders.’16 Omand added that if those responsible for execution did not feel really trusted and empowered then delivery would be hesitant not bold and vigorous. Those who must deliver needed to know that their own tribal leaders (whom they trusted to watch their backs) had been in the room when the decision was made. These conditions did not exist in the government, as the political memoirs of those at the centre of New Labour have shown. The experiment left a lasting policy question of whether the Treasury can ever be a domestic policy department led by a Chancellor who has his own social agenda. Wilson, meanwhile, admired the Burke Trend years and had worked closely with Armstrong and Butler. He recognised that under Thatcher the Permanent
and was expected to do more than delegate that responsibility beyond the fast stream to the heirs of the old Executive Class. Nevertheless, he saw the core of the Cabinet Secretary’s role as: ‘fundamentally to support good, strong, effective collective government.’17 [Emphasis added]. He put a duty on himself to preserve the architecture of collective government for when it would once again be needed. He did not envisage a return to some past golden age; he envisaged that at the turn of the twenty-first century Cabinet would provide strategic leadership from close colleagues with a common vision, a common view and a degree of coherence – rather than as the supreme decision-taking body of yesterday when decisions could be taken at a more leisurely pace and the global economy had yet to emerge. Blair could of course seek to govern however he wished but Cabinet cohesion would again matter when the political position of a Prime Minister demanded it. This was dangerous territory for any official. The leadership style of Downing Street under Blair was summed up by the columnist Hugo Young who recorded that Tony Blair ‘thinks himself above politics and Party.’18 Wilson suspected that Blair used him to propitiate people and for protection against their wrath – sometimes as a scapegoat. This use of Wilson to broker deals with Ministers is well illustrated by the unsuccessful attempts to find a role for Frank Field in the light of his inability to work with Harriet Harman at the Department of Social Security. There was little risk to Wilson as the Ministers concerned were not the government’s ‘Big Beasts’ or closely linked to one; but as the collateral damage to Wilson from other attempts to impose the will of the Prime Minister over the proposal for a Working Age Agency and over the Robinson and Hinduja affairs demonstrates, in this environment selfsacrifice could be thrust upon the Cabinet Secretary.