The prime minister’s peremptory sacking of the head of the Treasury, Tom Scholar, is ominous. It was one of her first decisions and cannot have been anything he said or did. She had already let it be known, through “allies”, that she also intended to sack the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, but apparently changed her mind. Scholar’s sin was that he supposedly embodied the “Treasury orthodoxy”, which Liz Truss had pledged to overturn. His ousting was clearly meant as a talisman of her new regime.
If there is any defining feature of British government it is the creative tension between transient politicians and permanent civil servants. Good or bad, it has long been a constitutional principle. Continuity and experience are set against risk and innovation, albeit with the politicians ultimately in charge. Scholar has been head of the Treasury since 2016 and led it through perhaps its most tempestuous era, embracing Brexit and the pandemic, both with seismic implications for public finances. There is no evidence that he undermined cabinet policy through these difficult times. He is merely a victim of Truss’s sloganeering.
I once asked a permanent secretary of strong leftwing leanings how he had found serving under Thatcher. He said it was his happiest time. “Every day I got to the office and could sense exactly what the boss expected me to do. My job was to find the best way to do it.” Under other prime ministers, he said, he had to guess. Civil servants may have their own views, but even Sir Humphrey in the television series Yes Minister knew where the buck stopped. The essence of the civil service is to offer independent advice and then obey. But they must know what they are obeying, not just read it in the newspapers.
Scholar’s sacking has been deplored by two former cabinet secretaries, Lords Butler and O’Donnell, as improper and disrespectful. “A government wouldn’t come in and on the first day sack the head of Her Majesty’s defence forces, the chief of the defence staff,” Butler said. Truss has also sacked her national security adviser, Stephen Lovegrove. Surely we deserve to know why. The suspicion must be that Truss sacked these officials not for being wrong but from a fear that they might be right. Scholar’s replacement will now inevitably be tainted as a Truss stooge, as a Downing Street patsy.
Truss has so far offered little ideological or political coherence, merely a ragbag of slogans. All her life she has changed her mind. Currently she proclaims no more taxes, go for growth, spend on defence and defeat Russia. When challenged to explain how her figures added up, she just shouts: “Treasury orthodoxy.” Scholar was clearly seen as messenger of that orthodoxy.
Rather than debate the message, Truss kills the messenger. Likewise we assume with Lovegrove. This is government Trump-style. Both Johnson and Truss have shown they cannot tolerate having colleagues within the tent who may disagree with them. They have rejected the tradition of party government as a coalition rather than a court.
Truss has extended that intolerance to the civil service. She plainly lacks confidence in handling argument over policy and wishes to suppress dissent. This will debilitate the quality of her decisions and reduce debate, as under Johnson, to a torrent of gossip, leaks and resignations. It does not augur well.