Well, it is good to be back. And to be able to ‘bring my whole self to work’ as they say with casual insincerity in the civil service. Some of you may recall Caroline Bell, former contributor to this site. My real name is Evelyn Farr, as Russia’s FSB has kindly informed the interested world. In case you’re wondering, I am now a former civil servant, not a zombie, despite the best efforts of Whitehall mandarins to bury my alter ego. Perhaps they should have thought a bit more before terminating me on Halloween…
The PM’s magic roundabout
I have missed being Caroline Bell over the past few months. I have longed to write articles about the unprecedented prime ministerial merry-go-round we have recently witnessed – more bizarre, more Machievellian and more ripe for satire even than Theresa May’s Brexit pantomime of 2019. And that takes some beating. I would have loved to write something in praise of Boris Johnson, brought down by the machinations of Vladimir Putin, UK Rejoiners, vengeful backbenchers and a birthday cake. I am sure he will eventually have the last laugh – and, I trust, plenty more cake, with gazillions of cherries on top. I shall certainly miss his presence on the political stage, although my fall from grace is linked to my support for his government. But he is the one political figure who always cheers me up, with his optimism, good humour, ability to connect with people, pithy one liners and great speeches.
You’ve never had it so bad
Westminster is now a sorry charisma-free zone. The men in ill-fitting suits with stale ideas whom one believed to be safely buried in the political graveyard are back in charge; and boy is it depressing. And of course, it has everything to do with Brexit. It always does.
It is no accident that immediately after the appointment of Rishi Sunak as PM, without a vote of the Conservative Party membership, former Chancellor Philip Hammond – the chief architect of Theresa May’s lamentable Brexit policy – toured the airwaves to tell us how miserable we are all going to be. A Rejoiner to his fingertips, he knows it is essential to the Rejoiner narrative that Britain is painted as an economic basket case, a helpless little island unable to survive unless it is brought back within the embrace of the sclerotic and dysfunctional EU.
Never mind that despite two years of lockdowns (zealously advocated and enforced by these declinists), the UK economy is in better shape than many others. Or that thanks to the leadership of Boris Johnson, Britain made exactly the right call on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine while the EU tried to get Volodomyr Zelensky to fold so their dangerous dependency on Russian gas could continue. My recent experience leads me to conclude that declinist Rejoiners and Putin are on exactly the same page when it comes to Brexit. Both would like the UK’s external action limited to what is permitted by the EU’s laughably named ‘foreign and security policy’. Both want unaccountable, unelected technocrats in Brussels to decide who should live or die free in Europe and how far west Putin should be allowed to push Russia’s borders. It is a truly terrifying thought. And neatly brings us to our friends in St Petersburg at Cold River, the hacking contractor for the FSB.
The Russian connection
We have learned that Russian intelligence hacked Liz Truss’s mobile phone while she was Foreign Secretary. How was this even possible? Why wasn’t her security team all over this, ensuring that her communications were safe? Or did it in fact suit the people who brought Truss down – by blaming market movements caused by the Bank of England’s interest rate decision on her well-advertised plan to cancel Rishi Sunak’s tax rises – to have a convenient Russian back door into her private comms? Serious questions need to be asked about the civil service’s apparent use of material hacked and redacted by Russia’s FSB, which never provides such information without an agenda. It has certainly had a big part to play in my case.
Could this agenda even extend to replacing the prime minister with what it is hoped will be a more tractable premier should the prime minister du jour actually try to implement the mandate on which he/she was elected? This is not idle speculation: we are, after all, up against Vladimir Putin, who knows how to advance his aims using the West’s useful idiots.
Boris Johnson is detested by Russia because of his outspoken support for Ukraine. He is also loathed by many in Whitehall because he promised to Get Brexit Done. And I mean truly loathed. His days as PM were numbered the minute he took office. They managed to turf him out before he could defuse the nasty time-bomb contained in the Northern Ireland Protocol, a Whitehall ‘special’ designed to keep the whole of the UK as closely aligned to EU law as possible to make it easy to rejoin when the rejoiners regain control.
Liz Truss was the sponsor of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, drafted to remedy the indefensible situation where an unaccountable foreign organization imposes the law in part of the United Kingdom. She promised to push it through. She vowed to increase defence spending and step up Britain’s support for Ukraine against Russian aggression. She also committed herself to delivering real divergence from EU policy with her growth strategy. It is no wonder she was defenestrated at lightning speed. Top tip for former and aspiring prime ministers: you will only ever achieve your policy objectives if you dance around them in a crab-like fashion before crushing opponents in an unexpected pincer movement. Never announce exactly what you want to do and expect it to be allowed to happen.
Whether our new PM Rishi Sunak is a crab or is dancing on the end of a string remains to be seen. But one can be sure that if he ever shows signs of wanting to be his own man, his tenure will be far from easy.
You are probably thinking that I have drunk too many Vesper martinis this evening. Surely our self-styled ‘brilliant civil service’ would not use private data hacked by the Russians for their own ends? Think again. The civil service has plenty of form in this area. One only has to remember Philby, Burgess, Blunt and Maclean, who played the Establishment game better than anyone and got away with breathtaking betrayal for years. And my own troubles with the civil service started because of a Russian hacking operation. Back to Cold River.
First, I should probably provide a little background. I am a writer and historian by vocation, specialising in 18th century France. I research and write books in both English and French, and I’m an expert on Marie-Antoinette’s correspondence. I would far rather be talking to you about that. I became a civil servant quite by accident after a life-threatening illness, when I took what I thought would be a short routine admin assignment in the civil service in late 2016 in order to pay my bills. It was soon realised that my skills (bilingual French, project management) could be useful, so I was rapidly promoted and ended up project managing EU Exit legislation in one of the most contentious policy areas related to the Customs Union and Single Market. But let’s not get into that now.
Caroline Bell is born
Fast forward to autumn 2018 and the final negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement. I was working with people who used to attend negotiations in Brussels. I knew they were making a hash of things, mainly because they don’t understand the French way of negotiating: it is a cock fight to the death, not a multiple choice offered by people who are afraid of committing ‘micro-aggressions’. But it didn’t really matter that our negotiators didn’t have a clue, because the final Withdrawal Agreement was put together by Ollie Robbins (acting for Theresa May) and Sabine Weyand in secret, after the British negotiating team had returned home. Colleagues who had been at talks in the Berlaymont just days before did not know what was actually in the Withdrawal Agreement until it was published as a fait accompli by Theresa May, who would not even let Cabinet Ministers read it before she jumped on a jet to Brussels to sign what the EU’s team later rightly called a colonial agreement.
I downloaded the Withdrawal Agreement from the government website as soon as it was available (a public document, like all those I have analysed, inquisitors please note). I stayed up all night to read it – not exactly the most agreeable way to spend une nuit blanche. To say that I was appalled is an understatement. It was a thousand times worse than actual EU membership. I spoke to a negotiator colleague the next day and asked him how we could have possibly agreed to it. He admitted that he had not actually read it in full, but that we had to agree to whatever the EU demanded because, he declared, “the EU represents 30% of global GDP” (it was in fact only 13% excluding Britain); and leaving without ‘a deal’ would be catastrophic. I told him that the WA would never pass; but he, like the whole Whitehall machine, was convinced that it could be railroaded though Parliament and the British public could be forced to like it or lump it.
My fears increased over the following weeks as I saw colleagues calmly planning how to pull off this total sell-out. It was frightening to realise that most of them didn’t fully understand its terms or how the interlocking parts (withdrawal, backstop, political declaration) worked as a whole to trap us into a permanent subservient relationship with the EU. The media was spinning Mrs May’s Number 10’s misrepresentations of the treaty. My job had taught me that EU law is rigorously defended and enforced by the civil service, and that if the WA passed, Britain would become an EU-controlled satellite state, ripe for the plucking.
And so I took up my pen. Caroline Bell (the name belongs to a distant forbear) came into being and she wrote her first article, The Seven Deadly Sins in the draft Withdrawal Agreement. It was published on Briefings for Britain (then Briefings for Brexit), a site now passing five million views. The article brought her/me to the attention of MPs. I wrote the only line-by-line analysis of the Political Declaration, designed to force us into a permanent backstop arrangement, with the EU controlling our economy, agriculture and fisheries in perpetuity. My analysis was tabled and discussed at the only meeting of the now – thanks to Cold River – famous ‘Operation Surprise’. It’s a surprise to me, by the way, to know that that convivial and interesting discussion has been deemed by Putin’s apparatchiks to be part of a coup. If you want real coups, look at more recent changes at the top, please! This analysis was provided to and used by Boris Johnson’s team when they negotiated the 2019 Political Declaration, which formed the basis for talks on the Trade and Co-operation Agreement with the EU.
The jobs that got away
As a result of these articles, Caroline Bell’s reputation swiftly blossomed in high political circles. I was invited to meet serving and former government ministers as well as MPs and peers. I wrote briefings for them, and this led to three senior policy job offers. Needless to say, civil servants blocked my appointment in each case – except the last, earlier this year, when a new senior civil servant (who had clearly not received the memo) actually offered contract terms, which I accepted. And that’s when my troubles really started.
The witch hunt
The CV which got me that job listed all the briefings for ministers that Caroline Bell had produced. It was hacked by Russia’s FSB/Cold River operatives from the computer of the person who acted as the intermediary with the minister. I was in eminent company. Another person targeted was a former Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service. Sir Richard Dearlove wrote of his experiences in The Spectator at the time. (“How our pro-Brexit group was hacked by Russia”, 29 May 2022)
For my part, I was subjected to menacing calls and messages from a ‘journalist’ who writes for Putin-backing news outlets and websites, mostly abroad. He also has links to former British civil servants, which is interesting to say the least. He accused me of being ‘a traitor working in Number 10’ and of leaking documents ‘to far-right Brexiteers’. I have never worked in Number 10: I have only ever provided my own analysis to No 10 and other Ministers of the Crown upon request. The ‘far-right Brexiteers’ were presumably the intermediaries who passed on to ministers briefings I wrote for them based on my own research. Given my opinion of the analytical abilities of civil servants, I would hardly look to them for material to inform my briefings. Ministers wanted a different view than the one they were getting from their officials. Thinking outside the box was what brought me to their attention.
Then things became sinister. The ‘journalist’, a thoroughly nasty piece of work well known to the Security Services (as I later discovered), sent my hacked CV with a string of malicious allegations to my workplace. It should be remembered that this was strictly private material criminally obtained by a hostile foreign power, which as Sir Richard explained, manipulates and fabricates such material to serve its own purposes. Notwithstanding such a disreputable source, my workplace decided to join the pile-on. At the end of May, I was locked out of office systems without warning, then suspended on full pay while an ‘investigation’ was carried out into ‘an alleged potential security breach’, but more especially into my writings. I was accused of ‘running political interference’ and briefing politicians during the Brexit referendum campaign, although I didn’t start working for the civil service until after the referendum.
It was stated that my articles and briefings requested for government ministers ‘could undermine trust and confidence in the government’. I was told that I could not discuss the investigation with anyone other than my inquisitors and a legal representative. I was treated like a criminal when my IT equipment was collected and bagged by fraud investigators as ‘evidence’ of my supposed crimes. Despite being unbelievably stressed by this aggressive treatment – my serious health problems were hardly helped – I screenshotted every window on my laptop before handing it over. I feared that a sensitive document might be planted onto the machine, followed by a claim that I had leaked it. That’s how far I have learnt to trust the civil service. My “Briefings” contacts had told me that a Russian hack had been confirmed in detail, so I was doubly anxious not only on this score but also about my personal safety.
No, you can’t read that, minister
It was soon apparent that the investigation into an alleged security breach (quickly changed into an investigation into a potential hack of departmental systems by persons unknown), was merely a smokescreen to interrogate me about briefings for ministers and articles on Brexit written by Caroline Bell. These had to be investigated, it was claimed, to ascertain whether I had ‘proper permission, approval or authority’ to write them.
What it meant, of course, was that some junior numpty in the Department of Stupidity was trying to say that they alone could decide what policy briefings a minister could request or read. Crucially, it also meant that I could not write anything at all while I was under ‘investigation’. And that, dear reader, is why Caroline Bell was uncharacteristically silent during such a tumultuous political period.
Trick, no treat
I had no communication from the department about its so-called investigation after 30 June 2022. I was never interviewed. Then, on Halloween, I was told that my assignment would lapse at its end date instead of being renewed, and that as a contractor I was not entitled to statutory redundancy or notice. This is a matter of legal dispute, since only by treating me as a permanent employee for their sham ‘investigation’ could the civil service silence me while not one, but two elected prime ministers were removed from office.
As for the senior policy job I had accepted, I was never given a start date. I withdrew my acceptance after two months because I suspected that the witch hunt against me was linked to the job offer (and indeed, the investigation petered out very shortly after I withdrew my acceptance). It was clear to me that senior civil servants wanted to destroy my reputation, and with it the possibility of any meaningful post in Whitehall.
The Trabant civil service
It is ironic that I was approached by a think-tank during my suspension for my views on civil service reform. My immediate answer was that the civil service should be abolished. It is unreformable. I have met some genuinely bright, hardworking lovely people in the civil service (and I will certainly miss them), but the best will always leave when they hit the force field of mediocrity which has the system sewn up to ensure that only those who subscribe to civil service dogma and groupthink achieve positions of real responsibility. These are the people who preside over 20-week waits to process disability benefit claims, months of delays in the delivery of driving licences, our failed immigration system, billions lost in covid fraud, the nightmare of trying to get a tax refund paid or a passport in time for a holiday. They outsource law-making to the EU and thinking to Stonewall and Twitter activists. In any other career they would be sacked for poor performance. But the Trabant civil service trundles on, bits of trim falling off, belching noxious fumes and making up the rules as it goes along. It uses any means at its disposal – including, we now know, material provided by Russian spies – to ensure that it is never threatened by original thinkers (good riddance, Caroline Bell), or reforming ministers (so long, Jacob Rees-Mogg) or Prime Ministers who try to deliver for the people who elected them (whatever were you thinking, Boris and Liz?).
Am I surprised? No. Am I bitter? No. Bitterness is a wasteful emotion. I would quite like to thump a few people, but I will get over it. If anyone wants me, I am taking a break in the 18th century. It’s much more fun there.