Imagine two employment tribunals featuring top civil servants, one hot on the heels of the other.
Imagine Boris Johnson’s hatchet man Dominic Cummings facing questions not from a Laura Kuenssberg or a Robert Peston, with half an eye on maintaining relationships and keeping the anonymously briefed exclusives flowing, but from one of Britain’s fiercest QCs.
Hell, imagine putting Johnson on the stand. How much of the tax paid by carers, doctors, nurses, and key workers might it be worth, as our prime minister once put it, “spaffing up a wall” to prevent that from happening?
The answer to that question appears to be £248,189, which more or less equates to the annual salaries of 10 newly-qualified nurses.
That’s what has been paid to Sir Mark Sedwill, the UK’s top civil servant, after a mysterious resignation that, it turns out, wasn’t a resignation after all.
In a personal minute published on Wednesday, Johnson said the payment was “likely to be in the form of a pension contribution” making it – ker-ching – tax free.
“You have advised me that this is regular and legal, and value for money to do so,” the prime minister added on the minute, shared with two parliamentary select committees whose responsibilities including dealing with matters financial.
If the aim was the avoidance of the s***show to end all s***shows for the Johnson administration then you could actually argue that it would have been cheap at twice the price.
Of course, that was never likely to happen. Senior civil servants don’t just go knocking on the door of employment tribunals with powerful QCs at their shoulders. Until one, Sir Philip Rutnam, formerly Priti Patel’s permanent secretary at the Home Office, promised to do just that.
That’s not normally “the way things are done” in Britain. The way things are normally done is that you reach in taxpayers’ pockets and hand over a fat cheque like the one gifted to Sir Mark. The recipient then has the option of jumping into the City, a place where the sharks are a shade more honest about what they are, to make some serious money, or joining one of the innumerable public and private bodies that are usually only too keen to have a top civil servant on their boards. Or both.
So is this hush money? Well potentially, sort of. Sir Mark told a committee of MPs that one “regrettable feature of modern politics” was that civil servants such as himself were now “fair game” for hostile briefings. Which is what Sir Philip said too.
There was also his, shall we say, clarification on the subject of the resignation that wasn’t. It was instead, said Sir Mark, a mutual decision between him and Johnson, their having agreed that the roles of cabinet secretary and national security adviser should be split.
Reading between the lines of the coded words of senior civil servants is something of a national tradition. My reading of Sir Mark’s words in this case is that “agreed” looks a bit like Sir Mark saying “OK” after Johnson told him this is how it’s going to be in future at Cummings’ behest.
Will we hear more from the soon to be former cabinet secretary, who has also archly expressed sympathy with his thus far unnamed successor, in future? Only he knows that.
The public doesn’t usually pay too much attention to this sort of thing, which is of far more interest to journalists and the Westminster village than it is the man on the mythical Clapham omnibus.
That’s a pity because this shabby episode speaks volumes about the character of the current government and the scorched earth policy it is operating in Whitehall in the midst of a pandemic which is scorching the economy and killed thousands of Britons.
Still, while the terms of his deal means Johnson has avoided Sir Philip 2.0, a fiercely fiery entree after a Scotch bonnet hors d’oeuvre, he still faces Sir Philip 1.0.
Sir Philip, you may recall, was so incensed at the conduct of Patel that he passed on a no doubt similarly sized cheque and decided to do what had previously been thought unthinkable.
He was trashed in various media outlets for his trouble, and he might find securing the perks former civil servants usually receive somewhat more challenging than Sir Mark, but he will get his day in court, and you can bet people will pay attention to that when it happens.