Lessons from the Cabinet Room: An Interview with Gus O’Donnell

The Camerons and GOD (Gus O'Donnell) far right (photo AP)

My interview with Gus O’ Donnell — his first in depth interview as he prepares to retire as Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service is here in today’s Observer. Partiularly noteworthy is his strong opposition to aspects of the Freedom of Information Act.

His departure marks the end of an era in unexpected ways. First there’s his striking lack of a privileged background. Some civil servants have told me they fear a return to a more privileged Sir Humphrey style of management, especially as his role is being split 3 ways. Sir Gus’s warm personal style has seen him work successfully and provide valuable continuity between 4 very different Prime Ministers and in the period establishing Britain’s first coalition government in decades.  But of greater concern to many is a sense that a major political battle is only just getting underway about the future size and structure of the Civil Service. Sir Gus leaves with a gold plated final salary pension, exactly the kind being abolished for everyone else.

What fascinated me most looking back was that this valued economist was at the heart of not one but both of the worst economic crises in recent years — the 1992 ERM crisis and the 2008 banking collapse  both of which precipitated major recessions. These are the lines that didn’t make  the final version of the article:

On Black Wednesday 1992 and its aftermath:

“When I look back on the ERM — we embodied the right things in the 5 tests for joining the Euro. As an advisor I am please with the evidence based advice work we did. It was better that we were not in the Euro.”

On whether the meritocracy he values so much in the Civil Service is under threat with the new tuition fees and higher education changes:

“Of the top 200 civil servants only a quarter went to independent schools. The concern is if people don’t understand the system. I’m only worried people may be put off if they don’t understand how the fees system works.” Gus O’Donnell insisted someone like him (first in his family to go to University) would be able to make it today.

And on that infamous “game, set and match” phrase supposedly used to brief journalists about the success of Britain’s strategy in  the 1991 Maastricht treaty negotiations, Sir Gus says he never actually said that.

 Further reading

No wonder they call him God — Independent profile (March 2011)

The ongoing investigation into HMRC’s failures in corporate tax avoidance

Appointment of  new head of the Civil Service (Guardian Nov 15th)

Letter to the new head of the Civil Service (Guardian November 2011)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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