Jeremy Heywood, the late cabinet secretary and master of the Whitehall machine, would often send emails of just a few words. To Cabinet Office officials, No10 advisers or permanent secretaries the message would be: “who is gripping this?” or worse, for the receiver, “pl grip”.

It is grip that the No10 machine needs now, and Boris Johnson will be hoping that his trio of new appointments – Steve Barclay as chief of staff, Guto Harri as director of communications, and Andrew Griffith as head of the No10 policy unit – make a rapid difference to the perception that the prime minister has lost his authority to govern. But the new team starts from a confused and defensive position. Unless Johnson himself addresses the underlying problems with the style and structure of his operation little will change and “grip” will remain elusive.

There are five ways Johnson, Barclay and team can give themselves the best chance of making things work.

1. Define the chief of staff job properly

Steve Barclay is the most important appointment. To make the job work Barclay, who will supposedly continue as a minister in the Cabinet Office, will need to rapidly shed most of his ministerial responsibilities and devote himself full-time to what is an all-consuming position.

Flitting between desks in different buildings and trying to keep ministerial trappings of office will not work. He must be based in No10, act as Johnson’s political gatekeeper and attend all relevant meetings with the prime minister. He might be a minister but he should act, in former chief of staff Gavin Barwell’s words, knowing that the important part of his job title is “staff”, not “chief”.

The prime minister must also make good on assurances given by Michael Ellis in the Commons that Barclay will be held to account by parliament. A ministerial chief of staff is an actor in their own right and needs to be scrutinised as a minister, not as an adviser. The Commons Speaker and committee chairs must demand slots for Barclay to appear at Cabinet Office question time and in front of scrutiny committees.

If Barclay imposes his authority on the No10 political team and – because he is a minister – is able to set direction for civil servants, then for as long as he remains in the job he could prove to be a particularly powerful chief of staff, albeit serving a weakened prime minister. He would be a deputy prime minister in all but name.

2. Maintain the confidence of the cabinet

That points to Barclay’s next big test. There is already a deputy prime minister – Dominic Raab – but one who lacks Barclay’s potential power and cross-government influence. One of the jobs of a chief of staff is to broker across the cabinet, explain what is in the prime minister’s mind, their objectives, red lines and areas for compromise.

Barclay must be, and be seen to be, an honest broker, acting in line with the prime minister’s interest and representing Johnson’s now much depleted authority. There is no reason a minister cannot do this as well as an adviser, indeed it was part of Barclay’s old job in the Cabinet Office. But he will need to be careful to keep the cabinet on side and use his influence in a precise and measured way. Stories of splits between him and Johnson, or other major cabinet players, would be very damaging.

3. Demand focus and discipline from the prime minister

The operation of No10 during Johnson’s tenure shows that Barclay’s biggest test will be upward management of his boss. Johnson is not going to change his style, but in accepting the job Barclay must think that he has a shot at it. He is for the moment unsackable, so it should be possible for him to stand up to the prime minister, demand order to decision-making, discipline in statements, and to insist that – along with the new permanent secretary in No10 – Barclay manages the flow of information and decisions into and out of the prime minister’s study. If or when Johnson reneges on his promise to change his approach then the new No10 team must be prepared to walk out. The odds are still that it remains impossible for Johnson to change – which will lead to the failure of the all-new No10.

4. Strengthen the centre of government – not just No10

Reform often comes at a moment of crisis, and Johnson and Barclay have an opportunity to improve the centre of government. But the early signs are muddled. Badly thought through changes will mean less accountability, worse performance and a short-term fix leading to a long-term mess.

The prime minister and the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, must work out which parts of the Cabinet Office should move to a new Office of the Prime Minister, and which should stay or be moved elsewhere. There are a lot of questions. If the core of the Cabinet Office – the policy-brokering secretariats – are to move to a new “OPM” then presumably the cabinet secretary will do the same. How would he then fit in with the new chief of staff and No10 permanent secretary? Or would he stay in the Cabinet Office and risk being marginalised?

Barclay will need to hand responsibility for the government reform agenda and the corporate centre of the civil service to another minister, but how will they assert their authority over more senior ministerial colleagues? Reform had already been moved from Michael Gove to Barclay, this shift would mean marginalising vital changes. There is a case to move some of the corporate and efficiency functions of the Cabinet Office to the Treasury, but with the chancellor circling, does Johnson want to strengthen the Treasury’s power base? And what would be left in a denuded Cabinet Office? This needs work and Johnson, Barclay and Case must think to the long-term as part of re-organisation at the centre.

5. Improve links with Conservative MPs without being held to ransom by them

Like with whether Johnson can change his own leadership style, there must be questions about whether the Conservative parliamentary party is currently capable of being led, as different factions and groupings seemingly appear almost weekly briefing out new policy demands. Appointing MP and Johnson loyalist Andrew Griffith as the new head of the No10 policy unit is an attempt to build links with the party.

He promises “backbench policy committees – one covering each major department” as one of his priorities in an article for the ConservativeHome website. But his panoply of optimistic metaphors about the performance of the government might serve only to remind MPs that far from there being “political fuel in the tank”, the prime minister has suffered a catastrophic and rapid loss of authority, which he compounds with slurs and evasions that leave mainstream Conservatives deeply uneasy. Gimmicks will not work and are more likely to create resentment at MPs’ policy ideas being overlooked or mishandled. No10’s reputation with MPs will only improve if Johnson starts to look like a winner who can govern from a position of strength.

The odds may be against them, but Barclay, Harri, Griffith and others who join or remain in No10 clearly believe they have a chance to rebuild the prime minister’s government operation and bring a sense of order to the centre of government. The problem for them is that if they do, it will seem to be in spite of, rather than because of, Boris Johnson himself.

Original source – The Institute for Government

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