The problems with speaking truth to power

Chances are, at some point you’ve been given an answer to a question that you simply don’t like. You’ve probably wondered why you asked the question in the first place. And you’ll almost certainly have been in the situation where someone doles out unsolicited advice. It’s probably well meant, but left you infuriated nonetheless.

It happens all the time in politics. Except when the recipient of the unsolicited advice or unwelcome answer is Downing Street, it’s not just offering an opinion. It’s called speaking truth to power.

Events of the past month have seen a couple of high profile individuals speak truth to the power that is Downing Street. The first was Sir Ivan Rogers, who handed in his resignation amid great fanfare and departed Whitehall talking of the “muddled” thinking of government when it came to Brexit. Sir Ivan had form for ‘speaking truth to power’. It had been leaked that he’d privately told ministers that a UK-EU trade deal could take a decade to finalise.

The second example of speaking truth to power was this week in the form of Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of NHS England. Mr Stevens has warned of the financial pressures on the health service for a period of months, and this week challenged Downing Street claims over the extra cash that had and was being injected into the NHS. In this instance, Mr Stevens remains in post, but there’s little doubt relations with Downing Street and the Prime Minister have cooled significantly – to the point that sources close to the NHS England chief exec are briefing journalists that he has no intention of leaving the job.

You could argue that both individuals could have spoken more privately, but that would be an unfair assessment. Sir Ivan expressed views on a trade deal apparently in confidence to ministers, but it ended up in the papers. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to see what else Simon Stevens could have done when asked a question point blank by a Select Committee.

The two incidents pose some problems for Downing Street. Number 10’s response to both Sir Ivan and Simon Stevens came across as pretty defensive, which enabled critics to suggest the Prime Minister and her principal advisors are unwilling to hear opinions that disagree with their own, and are prepared to robustly take on perceived dissension in the ranks.

That’s not to say Downing Street doesn’t have a right, or even imperative, to challenge misconceptions or inaccuracies. But, equally officials will have to be mindful over the coming months, as they deal with contentious issues, they don’t appear willing to shoot the messenger. Especially if the messenger is an eminent professional in his or her field. The consequence will be that opinions contrary to those held by Downing Street get more airtime – and that Sir Ivan’s departure may not be the last we see, with others perhaps unwilling to express views that might constitute speaking truth to power.