Does Whitehall still say Yes, Prime Minister?

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Who says that life does not imitate art?

Image source, UKTV

Last week MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee tore a strip off Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood for his somewhat limited investigation into the Andrew Mitchell plebgate allegations. At the weekend the prime minister's former policy guru Steve Hilton described how Downing Street was often kept out of the loop by "paper-shuffling" civil servants. "The bureaucracy masters the politicians," he said.

On Monday David Cameron told the Today programme that there were "elements of truth" in Yes, Prime Minister's description of the relationship between minister and official. And this week ministers used the good offices of The Times to declare war on the civil service, dismissing Whitehall as "outdated" and "unfit for purpose".

So it is with exquisite timing that Yes, Prime Minister returns to our screens this week after an absence of 24 years. There is a new cast and a new contemporary scenario.

But the writers, Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn - along with the music, cartoons and essential drama - remain the same. Jim Hacker is prime minister of a coalition government with a small majority. He is caught up in a eurozone crisis and a summit that has failed to find a solution. He is locked in constant battle with his Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, who is trying to trick him into accepting a dodgy loan from a foreign nation. Hacker's solitary ally is the head of his policy unit, Claire Sutton.

The lines are as classy as ever. Sir Humphrey says: "Democracy should not be about executing the will of the people but the process whereby we secure the consent of the people to the policies of those qualified to decide on their behalf." Or how about: "Dealing with Europe is not about achieving success. It is about concealing failure." At one point, Bernard Woolley, Hacker's principal private secretary, warns the prime minister in Latin to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. To which a puzzled Hacker replies: "The Greeks can't afford gifts."

Some of the jokes are a touch familiar, such as the officials' attempts to keep documents from the prime minister by hiding them at the bottom of his red box. There are the party piece monologues from Sir Humphrey when he tries to explain something to the PM with increasingly complicated language. And there is perhaps too much sitting around talking and not enough plot to keep the drama going.

So much for the theatre criticism. Is it based on truth? Is it a reflection of the real relationship between ministers and civil servants, exaggerated for humour and effect? Well perhaps, on occasion. Sometimes officials do end up in conflict with their political masters but that conflict is rarely as overt as Yes, Prime Minister would have it.

The art of the official is to change the ministerial mind without the ministerial mind knowing it is being changed. So the reality is probably more mundane.

Some ministers and officials get on and work well together in mutual respect. Where ministers do complain about their civil servants, it tends to be more about their incompetence and inefficiency rather than their opposition to any policy. And where officials complain about their ministers, it tends to be more about their political weakness and inability to defend their department rather than their inept policy ideas.

So Whitehall and Westminster will recognise some truth in the new series of Yes, Prime Minister but it is still more comedy than documentary.