The Executive Power Project: the extraordinary resignation of a senior civil servant

29th February 2020

What this blog calls the “Executive Power Project” – in affectionate mockery of the so-called “Judicial Power Project” – is not just about attacks on an independent judiciary.

The Executive Power Project is about all the current concerted attacks on those elements of the state that check and balance executive power.

And so it is as much about the attacks on the impartial civil service as it is about the assault on the courts.

This morning we have had a further manifestation of the Executive Power Project – the resignation of the senior civil servant at the Home Office, Sir Philip Rutnam.

His piece to camera announcing his resignation is extraordinary, and should be watched in full (and it can be read here).

(From a defamation law perspective, it is striking how carefully drafted this statement is – the “I do not believe her” stands out especially – and if Patel countersues she will struggle to do on this wording.)

It is a measure of how rotten this government is that it can make a senior home office civil servant seem sympathetic, even a hero.

The Home Office routinely is brutal and excessive in the administration of its duties.

But what Rutnam has done today is admirable: he could have, as he alludes, taken the payout and signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Instead he has made the matter public and, he says, will sue to uphold his rights at a public tribunal.

In the days to come, his personal reputation will be trashed – just as attempts to do so when Sir Ivan Rogers resigned – and he appears to have factored that into his decision.

But beyond that knee-jerk trashing (which will be facilitated by the very free press that is also a target of the Executive Power Project) there is the issue of the extent to which ministers are now placing civil servants and diplomats in untenable positions.

For this resignation to be so public, and for the the follow-on suit to be just as public, means that the minister-official tensions are now hardening into contradictions.

Even in these strange political times, this is an important and worrying event.


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20 thoughts on “The Executive Power Project: the extraordinary resignation of a senior civil servant”

  1. As a mere member of the public watching this government in horror I am eternally grateful that there are senior experts who are standing up to politicians who wilfully ignore laws and regulations AND to other experts who have the courage to expose serious wrongdoing. Thank you all.

  2. These events are the F word made flesh, and even if Johnson decides that Patel needs to spend more time with her family, the assault on any checks to executive power will continue. Rutnam, a brave and honourable man, has the courts to turn to; but for how long?

  3. We’ve already seen a serious breakdown in trust between HMG and the EU, both the Brussels institutions and the member states. I fear Sir Philip’s resignation is a harbinger of a similar failure of trust between HMG and its own civil servants. In both cases, the damage will not be easily undone, and will linger long after this government falls, as all governments ultimately do.

  4. I just ask…Who do you think is the more competent? The Home Secretary or the (ex) Civil Servant.

    There, that didn’t take long did it.

  5. Keep these excellent postings coming, David.

    Hats off to Sir Philip Rutnam. Speaking up, instead of being bought off and shut down, is commendable.

    The UK could have left the EU amicably, without decimating our economy. But no, we must sacrifice the economy on the altar of an extremist ideology, and one that won’t work for the UK in the modern trading world.

    But potentially even worse is the assault on the checks and balances which prevent executive abuses of power. It seems that nothing in our history or constitution is sacred: parliamentary sovereignty, the independence of the judiciary and the BBC as a public broadcaster, the media at large, and the Civil Service, are all targets. They must subscribe to government thinking, or go under. Fascism is autocratic rule by a dictatorial leader……..

    If the public doesn’t wake up soon, our nation will face serious problems never even imagined at the time of the referendum.

    The people in power are dangerous and manipulative, without any genuine concern for the common good. Experts like David, Chris Grey, David Henig, Simon Wren-Lewis, and others, are repeatedly speaking truth to power. But is power listening? It may be that only experiencing what government wishes for us all will awaken the public mind, in what will be a slow motion car crash.

  6. Beyond repeating how striking is this resignation (and observing the clear distress of Sir Philip), I’d like to add that I would like to see our national broadcaster use to the greatest extent its current freedom to comment on these matters while members of the government have chosen to sidestep and stonewall its output.

  7. I wonder how this deliberate erosion of checks balances changes? I hear the sound of a stable door being slammed shut. Are we seeing the establishment of a ‘new normal’; a fact-free, accountability-free national politics?

  8. I worry deeply about the claim for unfair dismissal. Sir Philip is not employed by SoS, nor could it be claimed that she is an agent of the civil service, who is the employer of Sir Philip. There is a question of who is the employer of the civil servant. They used to be employed by the crown, I think this was clarified in the 1980’s that civil servants are employed by the government, although I am not aware that it has been tested in a court. However, it seems unlikely to me that the tribunal would accept that Sir Philip is employed by the SoS. Could it be argued that the SoS is acting as a delegated authority of the government, if so the case might be heard.
    Please tell me I’m wrong.

    1. I would have thought that a man as able and astute as SirPhillip would not have taken the steps and made the statements about them he has without thoroughly preparing, including expensive legal advice. Given that there was a monetary settlement and sideways shift negotiations with the head of the civil service, I suspect your fears are ill founded. (IANAnemploymentL)

  9. Is this not what Cummings wants? Setting up the civil service versus people confrontation. Patel was put there to achieve this and she has done it in double quick time. I doubt it will prove to be a tipping point more likely just another step on the road to despotism.

    1. A very brave and courageous speech from Sir Phillip, I hope this will motivate more people to make a stand against unacceptable behaviours in the workplace.

  10. A brave, honourable man. And he’s suing the Government rather than leaving under the cloak of a non-disclosure agreement.
    One hopes he will expose Patel for the little, vindictive dictator she tries to be.
    I trust this lesson is learnt by the me-too movement. Expose perpetrators, don’t run away and hide with a pay-off.

  11. Appreciative of your speedy response to events that came to light this morning. Completely agree with your article and no doubt the smear campaign against Sir Philip is only at the beginning .

  12. “Democracy; the fools have a right to vote. Dictatorship; the fools have a right to rule.” Bertrand Russell

  13. The problem is that it adds to a narrative that could be virtually endless. This is merely further proof of Johnsons unspoken commitment to drain the swamp. Cummings is a malicious, misguided sociopath but he understands how to get and keep the required majority. Objection to Johnson is justified but its just not big enough: people do really prefer the discourse over action. Were looking down the barrel at many years of this culture war. We might be pulling our hairs out but 30%+ could not be happier.

  14. As far as I recall, nobody actually elected Priti Polly Patel as Home Secretary….. (so a bit like an EC Commissioner, only worse, as they can be rejected by the elected EP).

    She was appointed, by a man who was elected as an MP by a few thousand people in small part of NW London, who then woke up one morning before Christmas to find that he had acquired the power to make such appointments!

  15. as you point out, David, the slavishness of most the press is ironic, as executive power is in principle a threat to the free press which is part of our democracy.

    I keep wondering – is a civil service strike or other industrial action against this Government waiting somewhere round the corner?

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