Tom Scholar, the most senior official at the UK Treasury, has been reappointed for another five-year term in a sign that the war on Whitehall being waged by Boris Johnson’s government has come to an end.
Sir Tom, who was appointed to the position in 2016, appeared on a hit list of senior civil servants Downing Street wished to see removed from their roles. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former senior adviser, pledged that a “hard rain” would fall on the British state.
Six permanent secretaries of government departments left their positions last year, including the former head of the civil service Mark Sedwill who left his position after falling out with Mr Johnson’s inner circle.
But Mr Cummings’ abrupt departure from Number 10 in November has led to a decisive shift in the prime minister’s attitude towards senior civil servants, despite his controversial decision to allow home secretary Priti Patel to stay in her position after a bullying inquiry found she broke the ministerial code.
One senior official said: “It’s detente, the war is over.” Another added: “It is a sign that we have moved to calmer, more traditional relationship between the government and civil service.”
Dave Penman, head of the FDA union that represents senior civil servants, said Sir Tom’s reappointment was “no less surprising given the reckless approach of the current government in retaining talent at the top of the civil service over the last 18 months.”
“It’s been clear for some time that the current crop of civil service leaders were being universally dismissed as part of the ‘problem’ by those who were influential in Number 10,” he said.
Sir Tom’s reappointment was welcomed in the Treasury. “It didn’t come as a major surprise — when you’re in a national crisis, you want your best people,” said one Treasury official.
One former colleague described him as a “very capable civil servant” who earned his spurs during former Labour chancellor Gordon Brown’s decade overseeing the Treasury. “His major challenge is going to be fixing the public finances. He’s one of the few seriously experienced civil servants left so it’s no surprise Number 10 concluded he had value.”
His position was secured because of a strong working relationship with chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has been impressed with the Treasury’s response to the coronavirus crisis, particularly with the rapid introduction of the furlough scheme to support jobs during lockdown.
The permanent secretary is said to want to make the organisation “more diverse and more flexible” and will oversee the establishment of a new Treasury outpost in the north: Darlington and Leeds have been mooted as possible locations for the new campus.
Sir Tom also secured his position in Whitehall by forming a triumvirate with Simon Case, head of the civil service, and Alex Chisholm, permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office.
The axis between the three influential officials will define the civil service over the rest of this parliament, as Whitehall seeks to rebuild the state after the pandemic while delivering Mr Johnson’s agenda to ‘level up’ the UK. That includes moving thousands of government officials out of London.
Whitehall has also welcomed the appointment of Antonia Romeo as the new permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, having led the Department for International Trade since 2017.
Ms Romeo was on the shortlist to lead the newly-merged Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, but has instead been promoted to run another significant department.
One seasoned Whitehall observer said: “Romeo is a sign that people with talent are good. It’s back to the norm. Given her career trajectory, a bigger department would be the next step.”
Despite the departure of Mr Cummings, the Johnson government will continue with its agenda to reform the civil service, with a policy white paper due to be published in the Spring. The agenda is expected to focus on diversifying recruitment, improving skills as well as moving more officials out of Whitehall.