The theory is straightforward. Ministers decide on policies they wish to see implemented, or identify problems that need government solutions. Civil servants advise on the best ways of implementing a policy or solving a problem. Ministers decide between these options and civil servants get on, implement and administer the policy.
Civil servants can refuse to implement only if the Minister is wanting to do something illegal or contrary to the agreed view of the government. They are not meant to let their own personal preferences and political views get in the way of carrying out a governing party Manifesto or the agreed wishes of the Cabinet or of a Minister with devolved power.
It is further agreed that only Ministers speak to the public and Parliament to explain and defend the policies and actions of the government, with the exceptions that civil servants may be employed as spokesmen and women to put across the agreed government policy in off the record briefings or occasionally as nominated experts on the record. Ministers do not reveal what advice they were given and civil servants do not brief out their views on the advice and on how the Minister took the decision.
This system sometimes breaks down. Ministers can let fly about civil servants and civil servants can brief against Ministers. Throughout our period in the EU our membership of the EU has created a substantial tension between Ministers wanting to govern the country and a civil service keen to maximise the constraints the EU imposes on self government.
The civil service as a whole admires the EU and likes the behind closed doors approach to legislating in the Council. Ministers are often told they cannot carry out their promises or meet the wishes of many UK voters because to do so would violate some EU Directive or regulation or Treaty requirement. When I was a Minister and since then the civil service preferred method of dealing with the EU is to find out what it wants to do next and tell Ministers they should welcome it or go along with it.
The current rows between Ministers and officials are related to the wish of the majority of the public to “take back control”. The paradox is the civil service does not wish to do this, but has used every opportunity in the last three and half years to try to recreate many features of current EU governance once we have “left”. Instead of preparing us for the opportunities of exit they have run a Remain based Project Fear machine. We have seen the results in some published statements and reviews, and in leaks. Much of it is shoddy and alarmist, unrelated to the reality of what is likely to happen.
So we have the Home Office trying to dilute the borders policy to recreate free movement of people. We have the Treasury trying to bake Maastricht debt controls, the austerity policy, back into a domestic version. We have some in the Environment Department trying to perpetuate EU fishing and farming policies. We have some Defence and Foreign office officials wanting to bind the UK into common defence procurement and more common operations with EU forces to make a European army more feasible. We have Trade and FCO officials not wanting a US trade deal for fear of it annoying the EU. There are of course many able and good individual civil servants and some who do like Brexit, but overall the civil service wants to take no risks by the UK doing something the EU may not approve.
It is this culture of EU best and EU first that some good Ministers are trying to change. Expect more sparks to fly. I know which side I am on.