Any minister who lies has Blair's full support

By Boris Johnson (Filed: 28/02/2002)

WHO can forget the sermon on spiritual frustration, as delivered by Alan Bennett in Beyond the Fringe? Life, the vicar tells us, is like a tin of sardines. You open them up and scoop them out, but there's always a little bit left in the corner that you can't quite reach.

Do you have a little bit of sardine in the corner of your life? asks the vicar; and the answer is, I do, vicar, I do. He is called Stephen Byers, and it seems impossible to get him out. He's the bit of toothpaste just beneath the nozzle of the tube. He's the stain on your tie.

He's like one of those nuclear bomb-proof bits of chewing gum that you are forced to sit on in the railways over which he presides with such intergalactic incompetence.

He clings to his seat at the Cabinet, as if blessed by the Almighty with a prehensile bottom. Train delays mount up, the Tube is in chaos, there is hardly a road in the country that isn't blighted by enigmatic and infuriating cones - and still Byers survives.

His department of state is more crumbly than Britain's transport infrastructure. His two top spin doctors fall together, their teeth locked in each other's throats, like Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls - and Byers stays in office.

Or perhaps, in deference to the shockingly Tarantino- esque language of Sir Richard Mottram, we should liken the mutual shoot-out between Sixsmith and Moore to the climax of Reservoir Dogs.

They spend ages pointing their guns at each other, and then - blam blam - un coup de deux veuves, and Byers is unharmed! He's the gangster who slinks away from the bloodbath, blinking and adjusting his tie.

Some may remember that when Tony Blair took office, he promised to sack any minister who lied. That doctrine has now been modified. It would appear, at least from the Byers case, that any minister who lies will receive the Prime Minister's full and unqualified support.

As the explosions die down and the smoke clears, and Byers is left smirking, one feels almost moved to salute his durability. He is like St Paul's during the Blitz. He is a figure of Odyssean resource.

Or perhaps he is just one of those child's toys with a weight at the bottom, which bobs up again whenever you knock it down. The whole thing might be comical were it not that the Byers affair illustrates a potentially tragic problem. It is to do with the Civil Service, and the end of the British tradition of impartiality.

If you are abroad and you find yourself in the British embassy, you suddenly inhale a great gust of Britishness. It is hard to pin down, and no doubt I will be convicted of pretentiousness, but there is something about British officialdom that is as British as eating a Cornish pasty on a cold morning at Reading station.

If you walk in from some hot Middle Eastern souk, or some African slum, or even from some cobbled Belgian street, you are suddenly overwhelmed with the culture of the British Civil Service.

The officials may not be dressed very flashily; they may even have dandruff; but you notice that they are calm, ironical, humorous, patient and above all that they play things by the rules.

We have a constitutional advantage in this country that is envied across the world. We have had it for more than a century, and we are now in danger of losing it. We have an explicitly independent and impartial Civil Service, staffed by people who owe their allegiance only to their country, and not to any political party.

This independence is the invention of the mid-Victorian reformers, Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan, who ended what was then called "political jobbery". Jobbery is the abuse of a position of public trust for private ends: like abusing your powers of patronage.

Northcote and Trevelyan thought British civil servants should be immune from the egotistical calculations of elected politicians; and to achieve complete fairness in selection, they instituted the Civil Service exam.

Not only would this ensure that government was carried out by the best and brightest, but also that ministers would receive impartial advice, continuously and irrespective of general elections.

The tragedy is that this system is now being wrecked by Labour, and, as Lord Armstrong, the former Cabinet Secretary, says in an outspoken article in this week's Spectator, we have political jobbery in another form.

Labour's fundamental psychological problem is that too many of them (like Byers) are ex-Marxists, and find it impossible to make the distinction between party and state.

That was the root cause of the Mittal scandal. Someone in Downing Street, very probably Jonathan Powell, wasn't sure in his own mind whether he was a party official or a public servant.

This confusion led Blair to make the absurd claim that Mittal's firm was "British", when the detail that really commanded Downing Street's attention was that Mittal had given Labour #125,000.

The same problem was in evidence in the Byers affair. Who really called the shots in briefing the media, the party stooge (Moore), or the civil servant (Sixsmith)?

Across Whitehall, there are now 81 jumped-up gofers, called special advisers, who are paid by the taxpayer, but who have passed no Civil Service exam, and who owe their loyalty entirely to Labour.

Suppose you have just been turned down for the Civil Service, or your child has. Isn't it outrageous that there should be a special type of gilded creep who doesn't have to pass an exam, but who can still boss around senior civil servants?

Parliament should at once repeal the Orders in Council, by which Alastair Campbell and Powell - Labour Party lackeys - have authority over civil servants. If he wants to reapply, Campbell should sit the exam like everyone else. That should sort him out.

Boris Johnson is editor of The Spectator and MP for Henley