The Civil Service v. Boris Johnson?

by ukcivilservant

It has been suggested (28 August) that “We are reaching the point where the civil service must consider putting its stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day”.

I do not recognise this concept.

Statute law and convention both require the civil service to serve the administration as it is duly constituted for the time being, whatever its political complexion.

Civil Servants’ duties etc. are summarised in The Armstrong Memorandum, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and the Civil Service Code.

The Armstrong Memorandum says that:

  • Civil servants are servants of the Crown. For all practical purposes the Crown in this context means and is represented by the Government of the day. … The Civil Service as such has no constitutional personality or responsibility separate from the duly constituted Government of the day.
  • The determination of policy is the responsibility of the Minister (within the convention of collective responsibility of the whole Government for the decisions and actions of every member of it). In the determination of policy the civil servant has no constitutional responsibility or role distinct from that of the Minister.

The Constitutional Reform etc. Act provides that

  • there should be a Civil Service Code which “must require civil servants … to carry out their duties for the assistance of the administration as it is duly constituted for the time being, whatever its political complexion”.

I cannot see that the above texts offer any possibility that civil servants have a duty of stewardship of the country, nor can I think of an example of such stewardship being exercised.

For completeness, the Act does also say that

  • In exercising his power to manage the civil service, the Minister for the Civil Service shall have regard to the need to ensure that civil servants who advise Ministers are aware of the constitutional significance of Parliament and of the conventions governing the relationship between Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government.

This phrase is repeated, but not expanded upon, in the Civil Service Code which, under the same Act, “forms part of the terms and conditions of service of any civil servant covered by the code.”

This formulation perhaps offers a glimmer of hope to those who would have the civil service defy the Johnson government.  But it does not persuade me.

All in all, therefore, we are in such a constitutional bind at the moment that I cannot think of any way in which any form of civil service intervention would make matters better.


  1. Former Head of the Civil Service, Bob Kerslake, suggested on the Today Programme on 29 August that the current Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, and his senior colleagues should resign. But they would need to be replaced, and it is hard to imagine that the Prime Minister would accept successors who were anything other than keen to do his bidding.
  2. And the IfG’s Catherine Haddon has noted that:- “There has been long debate about preserving their ability to serve future governments and advising on constitution and whether both constitutes some kind of ‘guardianship’ role. But that has always been about things within their purview and the proceedings of Parliament are not.”
  3. Civil servants – inc. those working in No.10 and for the Leader of the House – should have been consulted on, and will readily have given advice on, whether Ministers’ proposals were consistent with constitutional arrangements.


Martin Stanley
Editor  – Understanding Government websites … including …
Understanding the Civil Service