The hunt is on for Redthroat. ‘It’s pretty clear we’ve got a Labour mole inside Government,’ a Minister tells me. ‘There were suspicions before the Greensill affair, but this has basically confirmed it. It’s the only explanation for where all this stuff is coming from.’
It was Keir Starmer – ironically dubbed Captain Hindsight by Boris – who provided the first clue. Ministers and officials had become unnerved by the way he kept pre-empting major policy announcements with his own identical proposals.
It also became clear to journalists and other Westminster insiders that Starmer’s team had exceptionally good intelligence on the moves and moods within Downing Street.
Then, finally, the Greensill scandal broke. And Shadow Ministers were suddenly armed with so many texts, business cards and meeting dates it was if they had been sitting in the Treasury themselves. ‘It’s been destabilising,’ one Minister admits. ‘No one knows what’s going to come out next. None of this is properly sticking. But it just takes so long to work out what’s actually gone on and provide a proper response.’
The hunt is on for Redthroat. ‘It’s pretty clear we’ve got a Labour mole inside Government,’ a Minister tells me. ‘There were suspicions before the Greensill affair, but this has basically confirmed it. It’s the only explanation for where all this stuff is coming from’
Last week, allies of former PM David Cameron (left) accused aides loyal to Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove of deliberately fanning the Greensill flames
On the record, Labour are refusing to confirm they have a source inside Government. ‘We’re just not commenting on this,’ said a Starmer spokesman. But off the record, one official told me: ‘We’ve been getting some very juicy stuff from some unusual places. You’d be surprised where it’s coming from.’
Ministers believe they now know precisely where it’s coming from. And why.
It’s now ten months since Boris’s most senior adviser Dominic Cummings boasted ‘a hard rain is going to fall’ on the Civil Service. Ultimately he was ousted in the Carrie Coup – organised by the PM’s partner, Carrie Symonds – before he could drive through his plans to reform the Whitehall bureaucracy. But Sir Humphrey has not forgotten. And he has not forgiven.
With Cummings’ departure, the Civil Service has become emboldened.
‘They think they’ve won,’ a Minister tells me. ‘Their view is a hard rain did fall. But it fell on Cummings and all his weirdos and misfits.’
Now a downpour of sleaze allegations is hitting the Government. And the belief is that it’s civil servants who are the rainmakers. ‘Look at the texts that have been coming out,’ explains one Minister. ‘We’re being hit with all these Freedom of Information requests. Everything’s being entered into the system so we can judge what is or isn’t relevant. But then it’s coming out anyway.’
It was Keir Starmer (pictured) – ironically dubbed Captain Hindsight by Boris – who provided the first clue
The finger of suspicion is currently pointing in one direction. ‘You don’t need to be a genius to work out which department is behind all this,’ says another Minister. ‘It’s the Cabinet Office.’
Last October, I was told Cabinet Office officials were in the process of drawing up a secret dossier to deploy against senior Johnson officials. And last week, allies of former PM David Cameron accused aides loyal to Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove of deliberately fanning the Greensill flames.
But now attention is again turning towards career civil servants. ‘They’ve hung us out to dry,’ one Minister complains. ‘It’s impossible to get them to give clear advice on any of this stuff, and when they do give advice, it’s impossible to get them to stand behind it. I’ve gone to my officials and said, “OK, what are the rules on this?” And they’ve been saying, “Well, it’s complicated...”’ The tension being created between Ministers and their mandarins has been further exacerbated by the spectacle of former Civil Service head Lord Kerslake roaming the broadcast studios, expressing ‘shock’ and ‘concern’ at the Greensill saga. ‘Kerslake’s fingers are all over this,’ one Minister seethed. ‘And he’s tight with Labour.’
For his part, Kerslake has rejected as ‘complete nonsense’ the idea that he is involved in the Greensill briefings.
But someone definitely is. Although others believe Labour may actually have multiple sources handing them their Greensill ammunition – which is creating its own tensions within the party.
‘When Starmer’s people get stuff you can tell, because they try to give it to Rachel Reeves. They’re trying to boost her and bypass [Shadow Chancellor] Anneliese Dodds,’ says one Shadow Minister. ‘But Anneliese has her own contacts in the business community. And they’re leaking her some stuff as well.’
To many of the Government’s enemies, this attempt to shift focus on to the activity of civil servants will be seen as an attempt to pass the buck on the sleazy manoeuvring of a former Tory PM. Indeed, it may actually be less indicative of ‘Tory sleaze’ than ‘Tory paranoia’.
Sir Humphrey has teeth, and he isn’t afraid to use them. While Priti Patel’s critics rushed to lambast her over the findings of Sir Alex Allan’s bullying inquiry, they chose to overlook one significant finding. ‘The Civil Service itself needs to reflect on its role during this period,’ he wrote
Perhaps there is no Redthroat. Everything that has emerged in relation to Greensill may have done so without Sir Humphrey’s helping hand.
But the friction Greensill has created between Ministers and their officials is real. And it has exposed a number of significant truths about our nation’s governance.
One is that Cummings’ influence will continue to define the course of this Government for as long as Boris Johnson remains in office. When Cummings left, many Ministers, officials and civil servants breathed a deep sigh of relief. Well, they shouldn’t breathe too easily. Because while Dom may have gone, the fires he ignited are still smouldering.
Another is that we need to recalibrate our view of the Civil Service. Whenever an issue like Greensill explodes, and the mandarins find themselves in the firing line, people queue up to defend them. They are presented as selfless public servants, with no inclination to paddle in the murkier waters of the political world they inhabit.
Don’t you believe it. Sir Humphrey has teeth, and he isn’t afraid to use them. While Priti Patel’s critics rushed to lambast her over the findings of Sir Alex Allan’s bullying inquiry, they chose to overlook one significant finding. ‘The Civil Service itself needs to reflect on its role during this period,’ he wrote.
When Cummings (pictured) left, many Ministers, officials and civil servants breathed a deep sigh of relief. Well, they shouldn’t breathe too easily. Because while Dom may have gone, the fires he ignited are still smouldering
‘The Home Office was not as flexible as it could have been in responding to the Home Secretary’s requests and direction. She has – legitimately – not always felt supported by the department.’
Greensill is providing little evidence the Civil Service has taken up that invitation toward circumspection. I don’t believe this is the momentous scandal others say it is. But the most substantive revelation doesn’t actually relate to Ministers. It was the discovery that Bill Crothers, the mandarin in charge of Government procurement, took on a role with Greensill while still working for the Civil Service.
Labour are attempting to guide people’s attention towards ‘Tory sleaze’. But if there are lessons to be learnt from the Greensill saga, one of the main ones should be how it’s rumbled an unofficial but highly lucrative retirement scam for Civil Service high-flyers.
Which isn’t necessarily what Redthroat intended. But they are in too deep now. So it’s a race against time. Can Ministers identify Labour’s mole before he – or she – strikes again? Or will they awake to see more of their texts and meetings splashed across front pages?
Feel free to place your own bets. But my money’s on Redthroat.