The Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency wants to get civil servants back in the office. Why is he so bothered about it?
Condescending, patronising, passive aggressive, the milk monitor, those were the words used by union leaders, Labour MPs, and even some cabinet ministers to describe Jacob Rees-Mogg’s attempt to get civil servants back into Whitehall offices.
Because over the past few weeks, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency has been a man on a mission.
He’s toured government buildings, written to cabinet ministers demanding they issue a “clear message” to their civil servants, and published a league table showing how many officials were at their desks on a daily basis broken down by each department.
International Trade and Health and Social Care scored highest with 73 and 72 per cent of workers at their desks, while the Work and Pensions and Education departments were the lowest, around 27 and 25 per cent.
And then there was the personal note, printed on card…
“He has gone round a Whitehall department and left notes on people desks who are not in the office in person, who may be I don’t know, out to lunch, or much more likely, working from home.”Rachel Johnson, LBC
The note read, “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon. With every good wish, Rt hon Jacob Rees-Mogg MP.”
A picture of the note soon went viral online, and some began to question Jacob Rees-Mogg’s obsession with ending the working from home culture.
Unions have said his approach is damaging civil service morale. So what is Jacob Rees-Mogg up to?
In February, prime minister Boris Johnson had a mini reshuffle of his cabinet, and as part of that reshuffle, Jacob Rees-Mogg got a new job.
He was moved from leader of the House of Commons to the Cabinet Office in a newly created role as Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency.
As a passionate defender of the prime minister and supporter of Brexit, Boris Johnson reportedly wanted to make sure that Jacob Rees-Mogg was “looked after”.
But to some it looked more like a demotion after a string of political mishaps.
There were his comments on LBC about the Grenfell Tower fire…
“It seems to me that the tragedy of it… that the more one’s read over the weekend about the report and about the chances of the people surviving, if you just ignore what you’re told and leave, you are so much safer and I think if either of us were in a fire, whatever the fire brigade said, we would just leave the burning building.””Elon Musk, TED talk
…the way he apparently lounged on the House of Commons benches…
“Now there’s been a lot of talk about democracy this evening and the leader of the house who I have to say with his body language throughout this evening has been so contentious of this house…
Sit up! Sit up!
…and of the people and for the benefit of Hansard, the leader of the house has been spread across around three seats, lying out as if that was something very boring for him to listen to tonight.”BBC News
… and, more recently, his attempt to defend Boris Johnson over partygate using a cricket analogy on the BBC’s Newsnight programme…
Reporter: “This is getting quite difficult for the prime minister isn’t it?”
Jacob Rees-Mogg: “No I think you misunderstand what’s happened. The prime minister thought that what he was doing was within the rules and the police have thought otherwise. And this is just like the DRS system in cricket that sometimes the batsman thinks in good faith thinks he’s not out LBW and sometimes thinks the umpire thinks he’s not out in good faith but it goes to the third umpire who says it was out and then the batsman accepts the decision. It’s exactly what’s happened to the prime minister.”BBC Newsnight
Amidst the backlash to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s crusade against home working civil servants, there have been those who support what he’s trying to do.
Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein cited the mixed evidence on productivity while working from home, and said the best ideas often happen when people come together.
And the whistleblower Raphael Marshall who exposed the government’s mishandling of last August’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, said in evidence to parliament that staff shortages at the Foreign Office were made worse by some staff working from home, which hampered communication.
“In almost 20,000 words of testimony, Raphael Marshall details the chaos surrounding the leave outside the rule scheme between 75 and 150,000 people applied for evacuation under the scheme but fewer than five per cent were helped and some left behind were murdered by the Taliban”4 News
Jacob Rees-Mogg argues that empty offices are a cost to the taxpayer.
And he’s keen that the government leads the way on getting back to the office after it dropped its advice for people to work from home to reduce Covid transmission.
There is an economic argument. The more people go to the office, the more likely they are to spend money at coffee shops and restaurants.
And by picking another fight with the civil service, Jacob Rees-Mogg is also throwing some red meat to like-minded Conservative voters.
Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.
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