Downing Street must not conduct Whitehall reform by “firing squad”, a former Tory cabinet minister has said, amid reports of soaring tensions between No 10 and the civil service.
David Davis, the ex-Brexit secretary, said the government should not be making “hit lists” of Whitehall officials after it emerged that No 10 had set its sights on shifting permanent secretaries in several government departments.
The senior Tory also took aim at Dominic Cummings – who once described him as “lazy as a toad” and “thick as mince” – saying Boris Johnson’s powerful aide was only an adviser who would be “here today, gone tomorrow”.
Mr Cummings has sparked alarm with his bullish approach to government as he wages war on the establishment, including Whitehall and the BBC.
His appointment of No 10 aide Andrew Sabisky also sparked controversy, prompting the 27-year-old to resign amid a media storm over his past comments on eugenics, race and compulsory contraception.
Downing Street is said to be considering replacing Sir Tom Scholar, the top civil servant at the Treasury, as well as Sir Philip Rutnam, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, who is embroiled in a row with Priti Patel, the home secretary.
Sources told The Sunday Telegraph that there were “a few permanent secretaries that are on the s*** list who, given we’ve got five years and a majority, won’t be there very long”.
Asked if he was alarmed by the way No 10 is operating, Mr Davis told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “I don’t know whether the headlines reflect the reality – the hit list, to pick the rhyming slang.
“There are issues to resolve in the civil service, there’s no doubt about that, but you don’t solve a piece of managerial reform with a firing squad. That’s not not the way to do it.”
He added: “There are ways of making government work better. There are ways of making the permanent secretaries behave better but it doesn’t involve making hit lists.”
Mr Davis outlined the importance of not bypassing vetting processes after the row over the appointment of Mr Sabisky, who entered No 10 under an appeal from Mr Cummings for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for jobs.
“I think what is happening is people are not paying enough attention to the bits of the system that do work,” said Mr Davis.
“The bits of the system that do work are the positive vetting processes and so on, and if you start bypassing those, you start breaking the china and that’s what you don’t do.”
Asked about some of the disparaging comments made against him by Mr Cummings, he said: “Dominic Cummings doesn’t like me, I know, that’s self-evident.
“But he’s a special adviser. Here today, gone tomorrow.”
The row comes after Sajid Javid sensationally resigned as chancellor over a perceived power grab by No 10 at the Treasury, in which he was told to sack his advisers in favour of a joint Downing Street-Treasury unit.
Mr Javid said these were conditions “no self-respecting minister” could accept.