In a strict technical sense, I ceased to be a civil servant last night. Belonging, as I did, to the extended ministerial office of Greg Clark, my tenure was entirely linked to his. And when he ceased to be secretary of state for communities and local government, my role in the CLG EMO was made redundant. Of course, I was due to leave in just over two weeks in any case (see blog 30 June 2016), but the sudden way in which things can change in Whitehall can be rather dislocating. Although, of course, also totally exhilarating.
It was something of a roller coaster day altogether. I have experienced a reshuffle at close quarters before (see blog 15 July 2014) and they are high drama indeed. Nigh-on hysterical really. By a strange quirk of fate, yesterday lunchtime I was chairing a session for the “learning and development day” of the cities and local growth team in the BIS Conference Centre (civil servants do like this sort of thing). It had been in the diary for a long time, nobody could have foretold that it would be such a portentous day, and the uncertainty in the air was rather distracting. The cities and local growth team is the brilliant squad of spirited public servants who mastermind the devolution agenda, the city deals, and the local growth deals, for Greg Clark. And it was rather wonderful to get the chance to wish them a fond farewell, not knowing then whether I was out that evening, or at the end of July, but certainly knowing that this was the last time I was likely to be able to address them en masse. I told them that they are world famous among city thinkers (which I know to be true), that they are the future, and that they are the only team of civil servants that I’ve worked with who do actually get out enough. I meant it too. These guys are family. It has been an honour and a privilege to have stood shoulder to shoulder with these fine public servants in their work in building local economies. And I am proud of my association with them.
I returned to the department in the early afternoon, where there was a rather strange atmosphere altogether. To put it mildly, it was febrile. Queasy really. With a sudden shock I realised that this might be my last chance, so I set about furiously sorting out my intray and my files, attempting an orderly handover of my current casework with the appropriate officials. Needless to say all the TV monitors were on the entire time (this normally drives me nuts but it was forgivable yesterday afternoon) and folk were struggling to settle to anything. And then suddenly the news came in: Greg was OUT, Sajid Javid was IN. Well! The shock waves were felt throughout Marsham Street. The private office team suddenly set about frantically reordering the ministerial office, whilet the rest of the 1,700 odd CLG civil servants clustered around; some in deep mourning, others (mostly the older hands) coolly standing by.
Up on the ministerial floor, within the space of five minutes, all evidence of Greg and his special advisers had been erased; their personal effects swept into boxes, a new picture of Sajid Javid placed in the frame outside the Secretary of State’s office, new name signs for the new secretary of state, and for his special advisers (who travel with the individual politician, their futures inextricably bound with their masters) replacing the name signs that had been there a minute before. The private sectaries all donned jackets and ties and combed their hair, the women changed out of their trainers, the tea mugs and half empty packets of biscuits were all hidden in drawers. Then the principal private secretary and the permanent secretary went down to reception to wait for their new man. And, while all this frantic activity was going on, breaking news came in: Greg was in No 10. And then – joy of joys for Team Clark – Greg comes out, having been made secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy. Our man had been promoted, and a cheer went around. Those loyal to Greg are simply thrilled, not least of all the aforementioned cities and local growth team, who just happen to sit between CLG and the old-BIS, and who can therefore count on continuity of their work with their chief sponsor (and, indeed, there are live debates running on today about what other services could be usefully shared between these two departments concerned with growth).
The king is dead. Long live the king. After a decent period with his senior officials in his new office, Sajid Javid addressed all the CLG staff at 5pm in the Atrium of the CLG office. And a most skilful and accomplished performance it was. He got a huge ovation. The new Secretary of State then adjourned back upstairs to catch his breath, being courteous enough to sweep by the EMO on the way through to say hello. We were all introduced, and what a very charming man the new CLG boss is. Not every government department has an EMO, so it remains to be seen whether Mr Javid decides to set one up for himself; but he seemed genuinely pleased to meet all of us and to learn a little of what we do (or did) for Greg. It was a total pleasure to meet him, and we wish him all power to his elbow in continuing to tackle the fraught issue of housing supply.
Well it was an exhausting afternoon all right, and we were all feeling it. And, of course, there is only one thing to do after such a series of emotional highs and lows: the EMO adjourned to the pub at about 5.40pm. And we were joined shortly thereafter by the entire cities and local growth team. Most of us stayed there for some time. I think it is safe to say that all the pubs in Whitehall were somewhat under pressure last night.