Partygate is firmly back in the headlines and causing problems for the prime minister. In January, after senior official Sue Gray’s report into lockdown gatherings, Boris Johnson offered some limited contrition to MPs when he told the Commons he would reform the centre of government and create a new “office of the prime minister”.
Staff changes followed, but deeper structural reforms have not yet been introduced. There have been hints about reducing the number of people working in No10 and slimming down the cast for core meetings – rapidly countered by grumpy media briefings criticising the new team. This shows how much resentment structural changes create, and unlike most re-organisations the losers can take their gripes to the willing ears and an eager pens of lobby reporters.
In the Commons this week Johnson is likely to repeat earlier promises and may give us more detail about changes to the centre of government. We will perhaps see more teams drawn into the prime minister’s office and other Cabinet Office functions hived off. But this should be about much more than Johnson’s partygate defence. Using his leadership crisis as a catalyst for reform might exacerbate rather than solve the problems.
The structure of the Cabinet Office is always a bit of a mystery because it reflects the power dynamic of whoever is in office, but in recent years it has become particularly messy. Its remit is sprawling, ranging from the high policy and politics of No10 and the brokering secretariats to the Geospatial Commission. It includes the civil service human resources, commercial and digital teams that work in the background to help government function and much else besides. The most recent annual report records 13 ministers, 61 special advisers, five permanent secretaries and 29 directors general – leading over 9,000 staff. Covid explains some recent growth but the department is bigger than it needs to be with too many very senior officials, unclear lines of responsibility and high staff churn.
The Gray report told us that No10 also needs reform. Morale has been under huge strain and partygate prompted or exposed a crisis of leadership. It is perhaps too early to say whether the new team will solve this, but Steve Barclay double-jobbing as chief of staff and as senior minister in the Cabinet Office is unnecessarily complicated. There is confusion as to whether Barclay is doing a deputy prime minister-style policy brokering job, focusing on government reform or prioritising being in No10 as chief of staff.
No structural or staff reform will change Boris Johnson’s style or bring order where he decides that there can be none. However, this is an opportunity to boost No10’s ability to set strategic direction and hold departments to account. It is also a chance to be clearer about which functions in the Cabinet Office are focused on the prime minister and which serve the whole civil service and government.
But there are risks involved with structural changes. The first is that the new organisation further confuses rather than clarifies direction-setting and communication, exacerbating the type of chaotic decision-making process witnessed in the prime minister’s role in the evacuation of Nowzad charity workers and animals from Afghanistan. Reforms need to come with very clear lines of authority to the cabinet secretary and a full-time chief of staff to allow Johnson’s team to focus on the government’s top policy priorities.
Another risk is around the constitution and the form of cabinet government. If the cabinet secretary and policy-brokering secretariats move from the Cabinet Office to a new prime minister’s office then that is a loss for collective government. To some extent it is recognition that these teams have long treated the prime minister as their most important principal, but it matters to good government that secretariats in the centre can credibly broker between departments. The cabinet secretary in particular has an obligation to serve the whole of government, not just the interests of the prime minister.
Beefing up the direct support to the prime minister and carving off other functions also makes it likely that government reform efforts get marginalised. A weaker Cabinet Office, though still with responsibility for wider government reform, will mean that the prime minister will be further removed from the levers needed to change how government itself works. Management between departments will be more fragile and ministers and officials will take direction from the corporate centre less seriously. The departure of Michael Gove and the demands on Steve Barclay’s time have already seen political momentum behind reform fade.
To some extent that now seems inevitable. But to minimise the damage, the cabinet secretary as the head of the civil service needs to continue to oversee both the remainder of the Cabinet Office and the programme of government reform. The prime minister must also keep the core reform team close to the centre of power and appoint a heavy-hitting minister to take sole responsibility.
We should not expect a new structure at the centre of government to do much to alter this administration’s character – that comes from the prime minister personally and is set for the duration of his time in office. But if changes are to come they must not undermine either the constitutional basis for collective cabinet government or diminish the energy behind serious government reform. To do that would be worse than doing nothing.