As Matt Hancock was doing a not altogether convincing job of sounding as if he was on top of the coronavirus epidemic during health questions – being led by the scientific evidence increasingly sounds like ministerial code for making policy up on the hoof while trying not to panic – there was at least one part of Westminster that was functioning normally. As in barely functioning at all. For down on the committee corridor, cabinet secretary and senior civil servant Mark Sedwill found himself facing two hours of questions from the public administration and constitutional affairs select committee.
Here was the perfect calm. A man who has never knowingly given a helpful or straight answer to anyone. Indeed Sedwill would consider it a gross dereliction of duty to be anything other than thoroughly opaque. To be forgotten is the highest compliment he can be paid. And a committee that – with a couple of notable exceptions – was hell-bent on finding out absolutely nothing of any interest at all costs. Not just by passive negligence but also by active design. On several occasions it felt as if the committee was alarmed Sedwill might accidentally say something noteworthy and tried to warn him off. Not that he required their help.
The tone was set by chair William “Wet” Wragg. Quite how this Conservative MP has come to be in charge of this committee is one of life’s mysteries. It’s not just that he appears to have little personality – no one can remember him making a single telling contribution in the five years he has been in parliament – but also because he seems to be almost entirely without intellectual curiosity. Every day is a wondrous new beginning for him where he wakes up astonished to find he is an MP – an astonishment that is shared by those who know him best – and his first instinct is to ask for instructions on what to do next. Anything for a quiet life.
Wragg opened with a mumbled observation about bullying on the whole not being a very good thing. He sounded apologetic for bringing up such a potentially embarrassing subject and keen to move on to something less challenging. Sedwill agreed that everyone could probably do a bit better and it might be an idea to introduce some coaching for ministers to help them tone down the bullying a bit.
It was all kept deliberately vague and impersonal as no one was keen to mention the specific allegations against the home secretary, Priti Patel. Because that would be awkward for all concerned and might raise tricky questions. Tory David Jones was keen to point out that it was very hard to differentiate between robust discussion and bullying and that the benefit of the doubt should always go to the minister. Besides, rather than create a fuss, why not ship out a civil servant who objected to being bullied and employ one who responded well to it instead. Fellow Conservative John Stevenson nodded eagerly. Quite right. Ministers should be allowed to choose their yes men and women.
Sedwill, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Sir Humphrey as it is, responded by quoting directly from Yes, Minister. The whole job of being a civil servant was to keep the chips up rather than being forced into difficult situations when the chips were down. It was hard to know if he was just taking the piss out of the committee for being so hopeless or whether he always talked like this. Probably a bit of both. In any case he found another way of filling five minutes while saying precisely nothing.
It took a while, but the SNP’s Ronnie Cowan and Labour’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle did eventually raise the unprecedented public resignation of home office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam and the various allegations agains Patel. But they too rather succumbed to the inevitable futility and faded into unconsciousness. Too long in Wragg’s company can do that to you. Sedwill merely batted away any direct questions by saying he couldn’t comment as legal proceedings were ongoing. Not that he would have even if they weren’t.
So no one ever got round to getting to the bottom of the key issues. Such as whether Rutnam had gone to Sedwill before his resignation. Whether Sedwill thought there had been a breach of the ministerial code. Whether Rutnam had had any run-ins with previous ministers. And whether Sedwill had warned Boris Johnson about Patel’s previous. In fact, all the things the cabinet secretary had been summoned before the committee to answer.
Much the same negative energy hung over the rest of the session. This was the select committee as anti-matter. What could have been a tricky few minutes on the recruitment of “weirdos and misfits” as special advisers passed off with Sedwill saying nothing was anything to do with him. He wasn’t even prepared to say whether it was Boris or Dominic Cummings who had ultimately been responsible for recruiting a eugenicist. Well above his pay grade. As indeed it appears to be above everyone’s.
Eventually Wet Wragg drew the proceedings to a close. This had been an extremely useful session, he said, precisely because no one had learned anything. Sedwill could only agree. It had taken years of training to learn how to be this counter-productive. Sir Humphrey would have been proud of him.