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Mile End Institute

Making Downing Street Work

As Conservative Party members decide who will be the next Prime Minister, Dr Max Stafford considers the organisational challenges facing the next occupant of Number 10 Downing Street and the fate of Boris Johnson's commitment to establish an Office of the Prime Minister. 

Black and White photo of Downing Street road sign.
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

Over the years, I've written many blogs on issues that frankly won't decide a forthcoming election. The issue at the heart of this blog might, however, do just that. The election: the race to be the next Leader of the Conservative Party and, therefore, Prime Minister. The issue: how the next PM's advisers run Downing Street. 

This blog doesn't speculate about the exact people who will do these roles - that has been covered by Annabelle Dickson - so instead I will examine what those advisers need to do, and why it matters. 

Inevitably, when the premiership changes hands so too do the occupants of the staff desks in Downing Street. Many of those working there will not have faces that you recognise or names that trip straight off the tongue. Many of us can name Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill, or Dominic Cummings, but how many of us could name the current Deputy Chiefs of Staff? Simone Finn, David Canzini, and Ben Gascoigne, since you ask! 

However, who these people are does matter, even if we don't necessarily know all of their names. 'Partygate' alone (and numerous other scandals before it) have shown that the working culture of Number 10 can deeply affect the wider focus and effectiveness of government. In 2009, the allegation that one of Gordon Brown's key advisers had been seeking to collate smears on political opponents led to wider questions around the integrity and accountability of the Prime Minister's operation. In 2017, Theresa May's reliance on Timothy and Hill seemed to distance her from her own ministers, with growing disaffection being the result until both departed after the General Election. 

Likewise, 'Partygate' was so deeply controversial that it not only led to a Civil Service-led investigation but also, of possibly longer-term significance, led Johnson to commit to establishing an Office of the Prime Minister. 

Just to make the whole thing much more complex (because it was clearly all too easy), the 'geography' of how close to the PM you are also matters deeply. I won't dwell on this too much - as Jack Brown has written a stellar book on that topic - but it is sufficient to say that the closer your office is to the PM, the more likely you are to be able to exert influence.

So, with the fact that Tory MPs have long been feeling as though Number 10 is too distant from their priorities and legislative work, the next Tory leader is going to have to ensure that whoever they pick will meet several criteria. First, they must command the confidence and respect of MPs, ministers, and the Civil Service. Delivery in government is important and an assured PM can go far in driving the agenda. But the May and Johnson operations both found that doing this in a way that excludes non-Downing Street stakeholders can eventually undermine confidence in the leader. 

Linked to this is the second point - competence matters. Supplying the boss with good gags and plenty of energising ideas is one thing; being able to assure others that you can also make government work productively is another. Johnson's team regularly briefed about how they 'got it' on this point, but the counter-briefings by ministers, civil servants and others suggests that this view was not shared by all

Tied in with this is the third requirement - clarity. The recent chaos of hyperbolic statements, policy U-turns, and general incoherence around government messaging has left the Johnson team searching for clarity in a manner that encouraged criticisms over general competence. 

Fourth, 'people management' is not a second-order consideration. Gavin Barwell (Theresa May's Chief of Staff between 2017 and 2019) described the 'staff' part of his job title as being much more important than 'chief'. By this, he meant that the personnel and welfare aspects of the job - bluntly, making sure that everyone in Downing Street's operation is both effective and supported - made for a more cohesive team. This cohesion should, in turn, make for clearer, consistent, and confident engagement with those beyond the famous black door. 

So, what does this mean for the next occupant and their advisory team? Central to their agenda of restoring confidence in Number 10 will be to decide whether to continue to pursue Boris Johnson's commitment to create a new Office of the Prime Minister - the work for which is currently underway. If it is junked, what can the new PM do to ensure that trust is still shown to be a high priority for their operation? If it is retained, will it remain largely a 're-badging' exercise, or will it be a key reform to how we're governed? 

Such questions don't uproot many trees, and a new PM will be keen to show that their main priorities lie with the economy, National Health Service waiting lists, and the war in Ukraine. But projecting a desire to achieve the above tasks will be important. 

Finally, there is already some indication that the candidates are keen to show that this matters to them. Earlier this week, for example, Rishi Sunak made a public commitment not to include Dominic Cummings in his Downing Street team. This may reflect rather more upon the personality of the individual concerned, but it also symbolises a desire to assert that his team 'get it' on cohesion. Others may soon make similar commitments and comments. 

Ultimately, this particular occurrence of speculation about how Downing Street is run by advisers under its next resident will become a much less salient matter in the years ahead. We will much more likely judge the winner on how they delivered, but that does all rather rely on how they were enabled, blocked, supported, or stymied by their own team and its working culture. The wider issue of the ongoing debate about how Downing Street is run is, however, perennial, and it may just become a bit more important in the years ahead. 

Dr Max Stafford is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Mile End Institute and a Fellow (FHEA) of Advance HE. He is currently working on a book examining mayors as political leaders and another examining the changing role of the Downing Street Chief of Staff. 



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