After a brief apology to the House of Commons for his mistakes during the partygate scandal, the prime minister tried to get on the front foot by announcing changes to the way he runs No10 and the Cabinet Office. He was responding to Sue Gray’s report which criticised “fragmented and complicated” Downing Street structures that have sometimes “led to the blurring of lines of accountability”. Boris Johnson proposes an Office of the Prime Minister with a permanent secretary to lead it.
Johnson is focusing on one of the problems with No10 – that its operation needs restructuring and that as it has got larger the responsibility on his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds is too great. But he is avoiding the other critique – of his leadership and approach to decision-making.
The last time Johnson came under heavy pressure from his party he removed his chief adviser Dominic Cummings and promised to reset his No10 operation. Recent problems have reinforced the point that shifting personnel is no silver bullet. Neither the civil service grades of his team, nor the markers on an organisation chart matter as much as how the prime minister works with his No10 and the signals that he sends.
To some extent No10 is always a court, where special advisers and civil servants compete for the attention of the boss. And those who lead No10 should not go too far in closing down debate or access to the prime minister. But under Johnson the jostling for influence has been extreme. He prefers chaotic decision-making because it allows him to master the confusion, but this has led to disorder in Whitehall, uncertainty over what decisions have been made and ineffective government. Gray’s work shows that it has failed and that it is long since time for Johnson to employ a more disciplined approach.
The plans for a new No10 are not yet clear and could be anything from a rebranding to the creation of a full prime ministerial department. But what Johnson has said so far does not suggest anything new. No10 is already the office of the prime minister in every meaningful way. And it has previously been home to three permanent secretaries – Jeremy Heywood under Gordon Brown, and then briefly Simon Case and James Bowler to help co-ordinate the government’s Covid response.
Whether there is a permanent secretary or not, No10 will be dominated by two key jobs because it is both a political and a government operation. They must be filled by people who have the complete confidence of the prime minister, are trusted to carry out his agenda, and speak with his authority.
The top No10 civil servant, currently Reynolds but perhaps in future a new more senior official, runs the operational side of No10 and oversees his private office alongside all the other permanent officials in the building. He or she must have the final say on which official advice is commissioned by No10 and how it is presented to the prime minister and have the authority to transmit his decisions out to the wider government machine.
The prime minister’s most senior political adviser – at present chief of staff Dan Rosenfield – needs to assert a similar grip over the political and parliamentary advice in No10. He must keep the special advisers in the policy unit, press office and across the rest of No10 aligned to the prime minister’s mission and to act as enforcer for those who step out of line, as well as being a core link to the parliamentary party.
These leaders in No10, most importantly the prime minister himself, need to restore trust and confidence in what must be a shattered team. Perhaps at times Johnson’s stonewalling on attendance at parties was an attempt to shield his staff. But on other occasions he has seemed to blame others who failed to inform him about the Covid rules or who organised suspiciously convivial “work events”.
Johnson promises a staff clear-out in his office but will struggle to recruit new top civil servants. And a tranche of high-profile sackings risks making things worse. Few officials with an eye to their long-term careers would want to get caught in the web of Johnson’s scandals.
So he will need to offer robust reassurances. Gray points out that “staff wanted to raise concerns about behaviours they witnessed at work but at times felt unable to do so”. That means a complete overhaul of whistleblowing procedures in No10 is needed. And as former No10 adviser Nikki da Costa points out, the prime minister owes his team reasonable access and a stable working environment.
Most importantly if No10 is going to be able to focus on Johnson’s priorities, the prime minister will need to start maintaining and enforcing higher ethical standards to end these constant distractions. This might not be the top priority for the public, but properly strengthening the system of standards would show that Johnson really does “get it”.
Then if the prime minister wants to fundamentally improve his No10 operation he needs a stronger mission for his government. Brexit and Covid are no longer motivating factors and resting on former glories will not help with future ambitions. “Levelling up and uniting the nation” is the plan, but so far there is little sense that this truly animates Johnson’s government. Without a mission No10 will be listless, underpowered and distracted, unable to mould the dozens of major decisions government makes each day into something like a coherent whole.
The consequences of the Gray report, the Metropolitan Police’s investigations and the decisions of Conservative MPs about the prime minister’s future may still take some time to play out. But if there are to be new personnel in No10 their top priorities are to rebuild a functional team, operating within coherent structures to a compelling mission to change the country for the better.
That has always been – and will always remain – the responsibility of the prime minister. Careful restructures can be useful to revive a team. But that is a second order issue. For as long as he is prime minister the character of the government will be determined by the court of Boris Johnson.