Who the hell does Gus O’Donnell think he is?

by Tom Harris

Revelations that head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, blocked a judicial inquiry into allegations of phone hacking by the News of the World, prompts the urgent question: who the hell does he think he is?

According to the Guardian, O’Donnell considered that by the autumn of 2009, the general election was imminent and therefore an inquiry would be too politically sensitive, given that former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, was now spinning for David Cameron.

Well, so what? If something is so serious that it warrants investigation, then it should be investigated, irrespective of the political timetable. In fact, the proximity of Coulson to power at that point should have made an inquiry more imperative, not less.

One of Labour’s great weaknesses in office was our tendency to defer far too much to civil servants. It was something I was guilty of during my brief tenure as a minister, as I’m sure was every other Labour minister. Perhaps it’s part of our political DNA; deep down we know we don’t really belong in Whitehall, that we’re mere interlopers, filling the brief gaps in the natural order of Tory hegemony. So to attain that elusive legitimacy, we seek the approval of the civil service by bending over backwards in order to take their advice. Or orders.

But O’Donnell has form with his democratically suspect manoeuvrings. Just a few months after telling the British prime minister that he could not have the inquiry which it was his (O’Donnell’s) job to instigate at the request of his boss, he then decided that any period of minority government following May’s general election would not be acceptable. And just to prove his point, he produced an “authoritative” document, drawn up by “senior civil servants” saying so.

But not acceptable to whom? Well, the Palace, apparently. And the financial markets. It said so in Gus’s “big book”, so it must be true.

In a nutshell, O’Donnell decided that it would be harmful to Britain’s interests if the UK were governed, even for a short period, by a prime minister unable to command a majority in the Commons. Which is why we ended up with the truly bizarre spectacle of Gordon Brown, on the Friday after polling, announcing from the steps of Number 10 that he would be staying on in government long enough to facilitate a coalition agreement between David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

“Good boy”, we can imagine Gus telling Gordon after he’d come back into the building.

Having been roundly rejected by the public, Gordon Brown’s responsibility was not to facilitate a cosy little deal between his enemies, but to hand in his resignation to the Queen. She would then have been forced to invite Cameron – with or without a formal agreement with Clegg – to form a government. That may well have led to a minority government and a second election within a year. Or it might still have led to a coalition or more loose arrangement between the Tories and Lib Dems. That may not have been HM’s or O’Donnell’s preferred scenario, but here’s the thing: that doesn’t matter.

I’m sorry to be a bit old fashioned or bolshie on this point, but the following institutions – the Royal family, the civil service, and the international money markets – have an important thing in common: they are not remotely democratically constituted or accountable (except, in the civil service’s case, indirectly through democratically-elected politicians in Parliament). The Queen, obviously, is entitled to her opinion about the pitfalls of minority governments, but she must keep them to herself. Her job is to appoint a prime minister following the resignation of his predecessor, not to place caveats or conditions on the circumstances of such appointments.

The financial markets should, of course, be taken into account. But that is a judgment for politicians to make, under advisement from civil servants where appropriate. But, ultimately, in the aftermath of the public having expressed their opinion at a general election, it is for politicians to decide what’s best for the nation and to inform the head of the civil service of their judgment. They may well get those judgments wrong, but that’s democracy for you.

It is O’Donnell’s job to implement politicians’ decisions to the best of his ability or, if his conscience prevents him from doing the job for which he is handsomely paid by the public purse, to make way for someone who will.

Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow South.

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9 Responses to “Who the hell does Gus O’Donnell think he is?”

  1. Laura says:

    Oh I see, it was all the fault of those pesky civil servants, who are all instinctively Tory. Not the fault of a Labour administration who after thirteen years in power still hadn’t worked out how to deal with civil service pressure.

    Don’t make me laugh. To make this all about a civil servant and not about the failure of his manager to manage him properly, or about Brown’s documented obsession with the Murdoch press, is ridiculous. And I think the current government would be the first to tell you that the old idea of the civil service as a bunch of secret Tories no longer holds true. And in the case of the ‘handbook’: the Labour government could at any moment have told Gus O’Donnell to go back to the drawing board, that he was taking too much on himself and that there was no need to change the traditional way of doing things. Why didn’t they? Just admit it, Labour were outplayed during the coalition negotiations. Maybe you hoped that there would be a minority government that would be unstable and force an early election so that people would come rushing back to Labour. It hasn’t happened. Get over it and think about winning the next election instead of looking back to blame everyone apart from the people in your own party who didn’t deliver.

  2. Stryker Miliband says:

    Riiiight. So the poor ickle MPs and pwime minister were too scared of nasty old Gus to tell him where to shove it? Brown didn’t quit the morning after the election because Gus’s big book told him not to?

    I expect better of you than this, Tom.

    PS: Might be best to not always believe what you read in the papers, even the Guardian.

  3. James Ruddick says:

    Superb article.

  4. Mouth of the Umber says:

    It might be that each Minister has far too many Civil Servants to attempt to control and that each Civil Servant has their own agenda. We’ve got to the situation where Whitehall Civil Servant have got so much pwer because so much power has now become centralised – London centric. We need to become a lot more serious about devolving serious power to directly elected Regional Governments.

  5. Purblind says:

    Am I the only one wondering whether information obtained from the voicemail of ministers found it’s way, through News International, into Cameron’s hands?

    That would be a good one for PMQ, no?

  6. Steve says:

    Excellent article Tom, well said…..at end of the day,a crime had ben committed and should have been investigated…this isn’t a political point but a crime & justice one.

  7. Stryker Miliband says:

    “this isn’t a political point but a crime & justice one.”

    Indeed. And the Cabinet Secretary doesn’t have the legal right or ability to prevent a judicial inquiry into anything. He can ADVISE ministers to follow a certain course of action, but the ministers are the ones who make the decisons. If an MP is so weak-willed as to be unable to say “no” to a civil servant, they shouldn’t be in government. They certainly shouldn’t be PM.

    This is not an “excellent” or “supurb” article, it’s a pathetic little moan of the sort that has been repeated countless times over the years by political types when their party is out of power – anything that went right during their tenure is down to strong leadership from MPs and ministers, anything that went badly is all the fault of the civil service.

  8. Roger says:

    While it is good to see any Labour MP questioning the unelected institutions that hold so much power the ultimate blame for not standing up to ‘Sir’ Gus was Brown’s.

    It’s deeply depressing that a man his colleagues once fawned on as the Iron Chancellor (forgetting that the last man to be so described was the arch-traitor Philip Snowden who with Ramsay Macdonald betrayed the party in 1931) should have proved so spineless a Prime Minister.

  9. Tom Harris says:

    “the ultimate blame for not standing up to ‘Sir’ Gus was Brown’s.”


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