Boris Johnson wants a key Brexit campaigner and former Labour MP to scrutinize the recruitment of top civil servants.
The U.K. government announced Thursday that Gisela Stuart, who chaired the official campaign for the U.K. to leave the European Union in 2016, is its preferred pick to be First Civil Service Commissioner. It’s a move that could reopen debates about the politicization of the U.K. civil service.
The civil service commission exists to ensure that officials are chosen on merit and on the basis of fair and open competition. It is independent of government and aims to uphold longstanding Whitehall principles of impartiality, objectivity, integrity and honesty.
Stuart was a minister in Tony Blair’s government but campaigned strongly in favor of Brexit and also alongside Johnson’s Conservatives at the 2019 election. She now sits in the House of Lords as an unaffiliated peer.
Alex Thomas, a program director at the Institute for Government think tank, said the pick “will be controversial with the civil service.”
He added: “The role of the commissioners is to safeguard civil service impartiality, so it’s odd for them to be led by a politician.”
Johnson has made clear his own frustrations with the civil service machine, blaming a sluggish response from officials for some of the U.K.‘s failings in the early part of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Thomas warned that the commission “shouldn’t be a vehicle for civil service reform, however much it’s needed — that’s not its job.”
He said: “Ministers and civil servants themselves should be doing that.”
Announcing the choice — which will be subject to scrutiny by MPs before the government proceeds — Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay said Stuart “has all the attributes, experience and independence of judgement needed to lead the civil service commission highly effectively.”