As a junior member of staff in a branch of the Foreign Office in Whitehall, my then teenage husband spent most of his days glued to his desk, writing business letters in formal French and German. Once a month, however, he was released from clerical servitude to man the tea trolley.

This was far more demanding than thumbing through bilingual dictionaries and tallying export receipts without a calculator. With 40 or more colleagues to keep in Earl Grey and biscuits, he spent the day topping up the urn and delivering a rolling supply of tea and coffee without spilling a drop or mixing up the orders.

From the way he describes it, little had changed since Dickens’s day. Not that he can reveal too much. Signing the Official Secrets Act, as all civil servants must, left him tight-lipped about how many sugar lumps Derek in credit control liked in his Tetley’s or who filched an extra custard cream when his back was turned. Such was the terror this document instils that I know MoD employees who are reluctant even to say what they had for breakfast.

For centuries, the civil service has been synonymous with dullness. For my generation, when the time came to get a job some of us could imagine nothing more dreary or staid. As professions went, it was drier than the Kalahari, and a great deal less fascinating. Parents who had lived through the war urged their children to join up, knowing it offered a route to financial security and, when they retired, a decent pension. They saw stability but the young, who had no inkling of what running a country entailed, saw living death. More fools us, you could say.

Now, however, the reputation of the civil service has been tarnished as never before in its history (which stretches back to Saxon times). Revelations have emerged about staff at No.10 buying a large fridge to stock copious bottles of wine, allowing them to enjoy boozy post-work sessions that left some sleeping off their hangovers on an office sofa and returning to their desks the next morning in the previous day’s clothes.

As stories continue to leak out, suggesting a culture of drinking and partying that brazenly defied Covid rules, it seems that what most of us regarded as the most prestigious address for a government desk is less West Wing and more Weatherspoons. Under the aegis of Boris Johnson, what should be the cerebral nerve centre of British democracy, a bastion of sobriety and integrity staffed by ferociously clever political minds, looks more akin to a feeder school for the Bullingdon Club.

Such behaviour might have been normal in more disreputable newspaper offices 25 years ago, but it is not what’s expected of those in the driving seat of power. You can almost feel the rage pulsating in the corridors of Whitehall as No. 10 brings disgrace on the profession. Tales of drunken soirees and lockdown gatherings risk ruining the image of a high-minded and hard-working administration. In bygone times, the worst accusation that could be levelled at these pen-pushers was that they were pedants or workaholics. Now, they are in danger of a far more damaging label.

Never mind that at the centre of the present Partygate scandal is the aptly-named Sue Gray. Her credentials seem to epitomise the job description for government employees: impartial, unimpeachable, scrupulous in attention to detail. But not even her peerless standing can staunch the loss of confidence in the denizens of Whitehall. Nor, one imagines, does Gray relish being in the limelight. When the deliberately shadowy figures behind the PM become front page news, it’s rather like an agent’s cover being blown.

Suddenly they have stepped beyond the zone in which they are expected to operate. Nobody can forget the shudder that went through Holyrood when Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, attracted flak for the way harassment complaints against Alex Salmond were handled. As a result, she is now a well-known public figure. But who among us can name her predecessor?

Whenever officials make headlines, it is symptomatic of deeper problems. Peter Hennessy’s magisterial history, Whitehall, explores the inner workings of government and its administrators. One assumes it is required reading for those joining the ranks of this formerly bowler-hatted, pin-striped, sensibly-heeled, demurely lip-sticked army. Think George Smiley, without the flashy cuff-links.

Although published in 1989, Whitehall remains a classic, its truths holding for today. As when Hennessy remarked of officials that “there has to be some awful scandal or argument for them to be in the front line”. Which is just what we have at the moment.

How many civil servants are there in No. 10? Count the corks. Yet while these might fill a recycling lorry, the so-called crème de la crème who directly report to and advise the Prime Minister account for a tiny fraction of the workforce. Figures from 2021 for England, Scotland and Wales show 472,700 full-time members, over 7000 of whom work for the Scottish Government. This is roughly where the numbers stood in 2010, before David Cameron rashly promised to slash them by a third.

You might argue that, as the bureaucracy expands, oversight and control of it weakens. But that would be grossly unfair. Boris Johnson’s former advisor Dominic Cummings has described No. 10 as a “madhouse”. As the fall-out from Partygate threatens to grow ever more toxic, the easy target for disciplining are the officials who did nothing to quell, and possibly actively promoted, its drink-sodden reputation. Yet on whose orders do they operate?

It’s worth remembering that one of the greatest skills in their line of work is to act as chameleons. When the Prime Minister – or First Minister – changes, they remain in place. In the USA, every administration brings in a fresh team, but here our politically neutral mandarins are the fixed points on the compass, helping guide politicians through what can feel like a maze. Thus continuity is maintained.

Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister is their patron saint, embodying caution, dispassion, obfuscation, deniability. Right now, the staff in No.10 must be wishing they had more closely followed his weaselly lead. Hennessy believed that civil servants “outlast any prime minister”. In this instance I fear he might be proved wrong.

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