Episode 9: Sir Humphrey meets the Others

Sir Humphrey and Me
7 min readFeb 12, 2021

So there are the good guys of Whitehall — and then of course there are the Others.

The Arseholes.

The Reptiles.

The Sex Pests.

The Tyrants.

Power is no guarantor of integrity, often quite the opposite, and it is civil servants who have to manage and endure the direct human consequences of the morally or emotionally dysfunctional people that sometimes slither their way along the corridors of power.

Mercifully, I have very little personal experience of dealing with any of the renowned “Monsters of Whitehall”.

There was the odd sharp word, yes, but it was entirely deserved as a consequence of my occasional blunderings during my career. The vast majority of politicians I encountered were thoroughly decent people: intelligent, talented, driven to serve.

The closest I came to a proper Whitehall hose-down, was observing a particularly sharp and self-regarding minister in conversation with an IT contractor who’d been summoned to his office.

The minister was explaining, in increasingly exasperated tones, that his something-and-something wasn’t syncing effectively to his what-not, and that this was terribly important as he had lots to do that morning.

The IT man, not entirely grasping the gravity of the situation, was slumped casually at the door of the minister’s office, sullenly picking at his nails, his shirt loosely flapping under the casual jumper he’d thrown on that day.

This, unfortunately, did not go down at all well with the minister, who stood up from his desk and marched over to the poor chap, eyes now bulging, his face puce with rage.

“STAND UP STRAIGHT WHEN YOU’RE TALKING TO ME”, he yelled.

“AND TUCK YOUR FUCKING SHIRT IN.”

A pause.

“YOU DO KNOW YOU’RE ADDRESSING A MINISTER OF THE CROWN, DON’T YOU?!

Another pause.

The minister straightened his back, drew the knot of his tie further up his collar.

“…NOT THE FUCKING BINMAN!” he added, unnecessarily.

Beside me, his private secretary rolled her eyes.

Now whether this outburst helped or hindered him in getting his computer fixed, I have no idea. But I’d certainly have advised him to check his internet browsing history very carefully over the weeks ahead.[1]

The sins of other ministers are milder.

Some don’t understand or perhaps don’t care about the unintentional impact their demeanour may have on civil servants. One example is Ed Balls and his economic assets.

Ed was one of the good guys, I felt. My own encounters with him were limited given our paths crossed at a very early stage of my career, but I left with a good impression of him as a person, albeit he was a sharper, more surly character than the one he has invented for himself since his Strictly adventure.

Certainly, he was very kind to me in the rare occasions I met him, and particularly so when I haplessly got him lost in an attempt to escort him to the green room at a big education conference. Ed was giving a very important, keynote speech that morning and was immersed in the job of making final preparations for it as we walked together.

My friends will tell you that a good sense of direction has never been my strongest suit, and this mission tested it to the full. The inner bowels of the conference centre stretched out before us, a rabbit warren of dark corridors and nameless doors.

Having cast open one of these doors to find a room full of the centre’s maintenance staff standing drinking tea, surrounded by their buckets and mops, I was beginning to sweat uncontrollably. The Education Secretary, gazing up from his blackberry, noticed my discomfort.

“Yes, I … err … yes, I wonder if we should go back the way we came and ask for directions,” he suggested mildly, with just a trace of the stutter he’d successfully overcome in his ascent to high office.

Mercifully, after a few minutes skulking around, we found the green room, and Ed sloped inside to enjoy a well-deserved cup of tea, no doubt ruminating on how to handle the senior boss who’d palmed such an idiot on him.

But I’m afraid the future Chancellor did have one unfortunate quality that I suspect he was entirely oblivious to. And this was — and I’m really sorry about this, Ed, but I have to say it — his protruding genitals.

Let me explain.

Ed and his political team exuded a consciously masculine and macho pose in the way they managed the department. It was a place full of swaggering bravado, swinging dicks and the overwhelming whiff of testosterone.

One manifestation of this was Ed’s own preference for lounging languorously in policy meetings, asserting his top dog status by planting his feet, legs akimbo, on the desk in front of him.

The problem was that Ed tended to wear tight trousers, and the effect was that his capacious groin ended up dominating everyone’s view. Policy officials would opine wisely about the big issues of the day while doing their best to ignore the faint outline of his gonads marked out against his pleated slacks.

Whether this was a demonstration of his much-vaunted “post neoclassical endogenous growth theory”, or merely the ultimate in nominative determinism, it didn’t go down well with the female contingent in the department — or indeed anyone who had just enjoyed a heavy lunch.

Special Advisers, or SpAds, present another potential source of difficulty for staff on the front line, though it’s worth saying upfront that many of them are wonderful people who go on to do worthy things in their own right.

Christina Robinson, Jeremy Hunt’s loyal media SpAd for many years, is one example. She took the unfathomable pain of losing her baby girl in 2015 and turned it into a crusade to improve maternity safety and raise awareness of baby loss. These duly became central pillars of Jeremy’s policy agenda during his time at Health, sparking a series of initiatives that could save many thousands of newborn babies and infants in the future.

Her predecessors Sue Beeby and Paul Harrison were also kind, generous and prodigiously talented people who treated the civil service well. The latter, who later served as Theresa May’s highly-respected press secretary during her troubled premiership, was particularly known in the Department of Health for his sharp suits and unfeasibly deep voice, which many felt was responsible for luring Benny the Beluga whale down the Thames in the late summer of 2018.

Others SpAds, though, were less commendable and I’m afraid some are little more than pound shop tyrants, pickled senseless on their power trip and betraying all the emotional intelligence of an angry wasp.

At one department, it wasn’t uncommon for the junior press officers on overnight duty to receive midnight calls from their SpAd, who would scream drunken abuse at them for whatever front-page headline had wound them up after stumbling out of the pub.[2]

Another set of SpAds were guilty of what I’m sure they would have airily dismissed as “laddish banter”, but which actually took the form of deliberately making sexually suggestive comments to the younger, more attractive female members of the team during meetings.[3]

It is to the shame of the department in question that so little was done to curb this behaviour, which had left some press officers reluctant to be in the presence of these officials on their own. It was raised several times through formal and informal channels but largely ignored.

In fact, worse than turning a blind idea, some of the senior civil servants in the team were actively complicit, egging on this behaviour by engaging in jokey camaraderie with the perpetrators. It was eventually stopped in its tracks by a new arrival to the senior team who they also tried to inveigle into their little boy’s club. He told them, in the earthy terms they’d understand, that this just wasn’t cricket.

“Ah, but times were different then”, some people will say, and to be fair I genuinely don’t think the same patterns of behaviour would be tolerated in the civil service today — I hope not, at least.

But it should give pause for thought that young female staffers in press and private office roles are still routinely asked to attend engagements, dinners and overnight trips with ministers without escort or protection.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of ministers are well-behaved, respectful and kind companions on the road isn’t the point: the gate is ajar when it should be firmly closed.

Notes:

[1] I stress this is not to imply that the minister in question was Damien Green, who resigned in 2017 after pornography was found on his work laptop. I’ve never worked with Green and so, like the rest of the country, I can only assume that his onanisms were his own(ananisms).

[2] The academically-minded officials in the department drew on the depths of their classical education to concoct sharp nicknames borrowed from the monsters of ancient myth. Others resorted to the more direct Anglo-Saxon language of Chaucer in their descriptions.

[3] This was altogether lost on one naive female press officer, who emerged baffled from a SpAd meeting, puzzling that the Spads had been talking about “pearl necklaces” while they briefed her on a story. She was taken aside and gently disabused of her innocence by an older (female) colleague.

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Sir Humphrey and Me

A former civil servant sharing light-hearted stories about life in the UK’s civil service