Jawad Iqbal Jawad Iqbal

The Tories can’t even organise a crackdown on rainbow lanyards

Esther McVey (Credit: Getty images)

A suggested government ban on rainbow-coloured lanyards in the civil service has, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved divisive at the highest reaches of government. The idea for the ban came from Esther McVey, officially a minister without portfolio but more widely known as ‘the minister for common sense’. 

In a speech on Monday, McVey suggested that permanent secretaries in government departments would take action against staff wearing anything other than officially branded lanyards as part of reforms to stop ‘the inappropriate backdoor politicisation of the civil service’. She accused civil servants who used messaging on lanyards of engaging in ‘political activism in a visible way’. Any offenders would be provided with new ones by their civil service bosses.

It is further evidence of an administration that is tired, out of ideas and counting down the days until the election

Plain enough, or so you might think. Yet it now turns out that new diversity guidance issued to civil servants today steers clear of any mention of lanyards, offending or otherwise. It states: ‘Civil servants must not allow their personal political views to determine their actions or any advice they give… This includes when carrying out government duties, such as developing policy, or engaging in learning and development or participating in staff networks.’ McVey has clearly chosen to interpret this directive as covering political symbols on lanyards, while other ministers believe the guidance does not oblige government departments to make civil servants remove them. In other words, confusion reigns.    

According to a report in the Times, the policy was not raised with other ministers, resulting in a cabinet row over the wisdom of such a ban. This might go some way towards explaining why Grant Shapps, the defence secretary, was quick to distance himself from McVey’s criticism of lanyards in a radio interview: ‘Personally, I don’t mind people expressing their views on these things. What lanyard somebody wears doesn’t particularly concern me.’

Shapps went on to say that he was more interested in the ‘jobs that the civil service do’ than in what they wore. An eminently sensible view, even though it is one not shared by the minister officially charged with bringing common sense back to Whitehall. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman also held back from telling officials not to wear lanyards but nevertheless backed McVey’s desire to create a ‘common identity across departments’ (what does that even mean?) and avoid ‘politicisation’ of the civil service. Clear as mud then. 

There is a temptation to laugh about much of this – but McVey has a point. Civil servants are duty-bound to be politically neutral when implementing official policies. Would a lanyard advocating support for nuclear disarmament be appropriate for a civil servant working in the Ministry of Defence? Would it be ok for a staffer in the Foreign Office to wear a lanyard with the colours of the Palestinian flag? It could, of course, also be argued that showing support for a cause is not always a political act. A ribbon in support of lung cancer research and funding is one obvious example; there are plenty of other ’causes’ that are not controversial or political.

The problem for the government is that this is far from the best moment to have a ministerial bust-up over lanyards. It isn’t so much the confusion and mixed public messaging – that’s bad enough – but more the idea that ministers are spending their time and energy on this of all things. It is further evidence of an administration that is tired, out of ideas and counting down the days until the election.

None of this helps Rishi Sunak either. Just yesterday the Prime Minister insisted that only he could deal with the big threats facing the country: ‘The next five years will be some of the most dangerous our country has ever known,’ he said, before going on to list the dangers posed by Russia, North Korea and Iran. A mere 24 hours later, that message has been totally undermined by the spectacle of ministerial infighting over the relatively limited threat posed by lanyard-wearing civil servants. Why would voters choose to entrust their future to a government which can’t even decide what it thinks about little ribbons? Over to you, Rishi. 

Written by
Jawad Iqbal

Jawad Iqbal is a broadcaster and ex-television news executive. Jawad is a former Visiting Senior Fellow in the Institute of Global Affairs at the LSE

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