Liam Fox urges Boris Johnson not to cave in to Whitehall 'self-interest' and press ahead with shake-up

Posted On: 
13th January 2020

Boris Johnson should be ready to slaughter the civil service's "sacred cows" as he mulls plans to radically reshape Whitehall, Liam Fox has declared.

Liam Fox was International Trade Secretary from 2016 to 2019.
Credit: 
PA

The Tory former Cabinet minister said the Prime Minister - whose top adviser Dominic Cummings is considering a string of changes to the civil service's structure and working culture - should ignore "self-interest" from mandarins resistant to change.

In a wide-ranging speech on getting Whitehall getting ready for Brexit, the former International Trade Secretary will call on Number 10 to axe the foreign aid department to ensure the Government has a “clear voice” on international issues after Britain leaves the EU.

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Mr Johnson has previously backed plans to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office, but it was reported last week that those proposals had been axed in favour of moves to improve performance in existing departments.

Number 10 is also said to be considering changes to Whitehall's hire-and-fire rules after Mr Cummings - a longstanding critic of the civil service - called for more "weirdos and misfits in government".

Dr Fox will tell the Institute for Government think tank: "With a new government in place with a strong mandate at such a key moment in our history, this is the time to slaughter the sacred cows to which successive governments have given a last-minute reprieve in order to buy political peace."

The former Cabinet Minister - who left government when Boris Johnson entered Number 10 - said the debate over Brexit was now "over" and urged ministers to "update our civil service in response".

He added: "We need to ensure that we speak with a clear voice on the issues that really matter, with a single foreign policy and a strong overseas network to further our diplomatic aims and take advantage of the opportunities that will come with changing patterns of global trade.

“We need Whitehall structures designed for our post-EU future and a civil service that is able to wean itself quickly away from two generations of Eurocentricity.”

Backing plans to merge DfID with the FCO, Dr Fox said: "In each of these scenarios there will be warnings aplenty that machinery of government changes will divert civil service energy at a time when they need to be completing the Brexit settlement.

"The sublime irony is, of course, that this advice will be coming from many of the very same people who sought to thwart Brexit itself.

"It is true that machinery of government changes can be diversionary, but this is also the time for significant internal change to match the scale of the external challenge.

"With a new government elected, with a strong majority, in a Britain about to abandon some of the institutions to which it has been shackled for the last 40 years, this is no time to give undue weight to traditional self-interest."

Dr Fox's call comes after charities and Conservative former aid ministers urged Boris Johnson not to axe DfID.

Repsonding to the speech, ex-International Developmenmt Secretary Andrew Mitchell - the first Tory to lead the department - told PoliticsHome: “I agree with Liam that it is very important to prioritise the work of the Department for International Trade. But we should also recognise the extraordinary respect in which DFID is held around the world for its skill and effectiveness and the huge contribution this will make to Global Britain."

He added: "It is true that DFID has 39 home civil servants working in Kenya, but only 10 work on the Kenya programme. The Department for International Trade has 22 across Africa and in my view should possibly prioritise Africa more."

Whitehall's unions have also joined former departmental heads in warning Number 10 that proposals floated so far for a major civil service shake-up show "a lack of understanding" of the organisation.