Boris Johnson was on Sunday urged not to conduct a politically motivated cull of senior civil servants, amid claims that Number 10 has compiled a hit list of mandarins it wants to purge from top Whitehall jobs.
Peter Ricketts, former head of the Foreign Office, said the latest front in Downing Street’s war with the British “establishment” would destabilise civil servants who were doing their best to offer impartial advice to the new government.
Meanwhile, David Davis, former Brexit secretary, also warned Mr Johnson to back off. “You don’t solve a piece of managerial reform with a firing squad,” he told The Andrew Marr Show on the BBC.
Last week it emerged that Priti Patel, home secretary, tried to remove her permanent secretary Philip Rutnam after “disagreements” between the pair, but the episode highlighted tensions across Whitehall.
The Sunday Telegraph reported that Number 10 also wanted to remove Simon McDonald, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, and Tom Scholar, the top civil servant at the Treasury.
One Tory source told the paper: “There are a few permanent secretaries that are on the ‘shitlist’ who, given we’ve now got five years and a majority, won’t be there for very long.” Downing Street declined to comment.
The top civil servants reportedly in Number 10’s sights are supposedly part of an establishment that has resisted Brexit. The former Vote Leave officials surrounding Mr Johnson, led by Dominic Cummings, want a clearout.
In recent weeks similar briefings have suggested that Number 10 might scrap the BBC’s licence fee, send the House of Lords to York, and clip the wings of supposedly politically activist judges.
While Sir Tom is said by colleagues in Number 10 and the Treasury to be well regarded by the new chancellor Rishi Sunak, a change at the top of Whitehall departments would be in keeping with the revolutionary spirit inside Downing Street.
Sir Peter said such a purge was “not helpful or necessary” and would undermine the willingness of civil servants to offer impartial and sometimes unwelcome advice to ministers on the big issues facing the country.
“This does look like the politicisation of senior civil service jobs if the prime minister intervenes like this,” he said. “It would break the long tradition where we have had neutral, objective civil servants who are not part of the political system.”
Mr Davis suggested that the briefings may be linked to Mr Cummings, who he said was a “here today, gone tomorrow” special adviser.
Government officials confirmed a Sunday Times report that some Treasury officials would be moved to a new northern “economic decision-making campus”, but said planning was at an early stage and nobody would be forced to move.
Security sources, meanwhile, denied a report that MI5 was withholding some information from Ms Patel. She is understood to be furious about the claims that MI5 did not trust her or believed she was unable to grasp the subtleties of intelligence briefings.
“Reports suggesting that the home secretary and MI5 do not have a strong relationship are simply untrue,” said one source.
“The home secretary is briefed daily on intelligence matters in exactly the same way as any previous post holder. No information is being withheld.”