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Changes in power at Whitehall must not start Ozark-style turf wars

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 30/06/2020 Anne Mcelvoy
Jason Bateman standing in front of a car © Provided by Evening Standard

If the ins and outs of Whitehall are perchance confusing you, let me suggest that you tune into Ozark on Netflix for a catch-up. No spoilers, but it is the addictive story of a power struggle between money launders and drug gangs in the Midwest, vying for money, power and the desire to kill their enemies before their enemies get the same idea. The more power someone acquires, the more extreme their conduct, until only the diehards are left undead.

Political life has now imitated TV art as Mark Sedwill, the sinewy Cabinet Secretary and chief of the civil service has been heaved upstairs to the Lords after tensions over the handling of Covid. In a further plot twist, David Frost, the Brexit negotiator (who one might have thought had a full in-tray as talks intensify this week to avoid a No-Deal outcome), has been transformed into national security adviser, with no obvious CV for that position. The permanent secretary at the Department of Justice is also rumoured to be for the chop for criticising Number 10’s lack of focus on belated prison reform.

All in all, a job in the upper echelons of the civil service in 2020 has lower professional life expectancy than working for a Mexican drug cartel. The heroes and villains of choice all reliably play to type in this episode. It allows Dominic Cummings to reassert authority and demonstrate that a “hard rain is coming” with the black cloud poised over a bloated Cabinet Office.

Michael Gove as ideologist-in-chief has weighed in with a lecture on how the machinery of government needs to change to cope with an age of disruption, from angry electorates to slowing growth, de-globalisation and the rise of new culture wars, fracturing social compacts across the democracies. The eternal mandarinate is on speed-dial to the complaints department, warning that no good will come of removing sound chaps from the administrative elite.

In fact, there is a keen sense of something overdue happening. Because bureaucracies do tend to turn inwards — a tendency deepened when cherished beliefs are challenged and a group of political punks in the Boris tribute band take control of the show.

Anne McElvoy posing for the camera © Provided by Evening Standard Anne McElvoy

Left, Right or in the traumatised Centre ground, we can mainly agree that so much has shifted in expectations of voters and the struggle of politicians to cope with an epoch of changes visited upon them, that government needs to think more broadly about how opportunities are shared and widen its net of talent. Lately, the fiercer cries to address racial inequalities and the anger of those who feel sidelined on the road to social progress, have highlighted how ill-equipped governments are when their orthodoxies are contested.

To that extent, good for the revolutionaries. But what happens next? The problem Ozark identifies is that the bits where blood and guts of rivals were spattered across the scenic interiors does not resolve anything. It just starts the next turf war. Getting stuff done is harder than stopping people you don’t like doing their stuff. Gove takes aim at the smug liberal intelligentsia, citing Franklin D Roosevelt’s crusade for “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” (Roosevelt was a great Thirties progressive but not so much when it came to gender-inclusive language).

A job in the upper echelons of the civil service has lower professional life expectancy than a Mexican drug cartel

The dividing lines the Government is drawing — with Brexit still at the heart of its view of the culture war, are easier to highlight than to address however. Score-settling with officials over Brexit and seeking to vary the “looking glass world” of received wisdoms in SW1 are a starting point not a plan.

Another intellectual of the Thirties Gove did not sweep into his footnotes is the playwright Bertolt Brecht, who described communism as “the easy thing that is hard to do”. That goes for other great leaps of change too. A government that started out with the full vigour of electoral success is floundering under the weight of a flood of “hard things” which urgently need to be done or undone or simply coped with better — notably Covid-19 and its impacts.

Along with the bravado and decapitations, Team Boris needs discipline and more focus in deciding what matters most to it. If it replaces one kind of groupthink and a trusted in-crowd with another, it can hardly claim to have added much to the diversity of ideas. Ozark, we devotees know, is the tale of what happens when ambition and the desire for victory turn to blood-letting and blame. It’s not enough — it never is, wherever the turf wars are fought.

Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist

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