• C. Peters

How No.10 Works – Part 1

No.10 is a metaphor for the British State…

No.10 Downing Street is the most famous government building in the country and, alongside the Whitehouse and the Kremlin, one of the most famous in the world.

The lockdown parties infamously threw the spotlight on the unique purpose of the building. It is in fact three different purposes all at once:

  • Office for the de facto executive head of government;

  • Stately hosting space for the Prime Minister to entertain dignitaries and so on, in the remains of the old Whitehall palace;

  • Home for the Prime Minister and Chancellor, and families – the two upstairs flats, No.10 and No.11.

Downing Street is a lane tucked away between the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office, just off Whitehall, which backs on to Horse Guards Parade.

When the office was given by George I in the 1720s as a grace in favour home to the first and longest serving Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, the road was informally known as “Cock Robin Road” – it’s is a pity for the Tabloids that didn’t catch on…

There is no one to eight Downing Street, they were demolished to make way for the Foreign Office which overshadows it.

There is a No.9, No.11 and a No.12, but whilst all serve as house fronts behind them it is essentially one big building.

The houses of Downing Street effectively merge into the Cabinet Office building, 70 Whitehall – which is at the back of it. The largest room on the Ground Floor in 70 Whitehall was shared with Cabinet Office officials by Dominic Cummings and the No.10 Policy Unit as part of their hyperbolically claimed “NASA style control centre”… In reality, it’s four flat screen TVs showing frozen 1990s style PowerPoint slides was more naff than NASA.

70 Whitehall is a modern administrative building built out of the old Whitehall Palace, the historic administrative palace of government used by the Tudors, Stewarts and Georgians before most of it was burned down and replaced by the Victorian Whitehall buildings you see today – what is left of the palace can mostly be seen in Horseguards Parade, which has Downing Street behind it.

And the reason this history matters is that in many ways Downing Street serves as a metaphor of the British state – the façade of a commoner’s house, which blends into the remains of a palace, on which an administrative office was built.

We are a democracy built on the foundations of a monarchy, with a complex ill-defined administration filling in the gaps.

No.10 it is a commoner’s house for living in, a palace for entertaining dignitaries, and an administrator’s HQ all at once.

And this also encapsulates the role of the Prime Minister.

The house symbolises the commoner. Since 1902, the Prime Minister has been a Member of the House of Commons – those that have been Lords since have had to renounce their peerages to be PM. A commoner, the Prime Minister must command a majority of the House of Commons and therefore is the legislative head of Parliament.

The palace encapsulates the monarchy. The Prime Minister is appointed by the Monarch and assumes their sovereign power. The PM is the Monarch’s chief Privy Counsellor and governments in their name. The Prime Minister governs in the monarch’s name and most of the power they wield actually resides with the Monarch, with the Crown, who by convention allows the PM to wield it. Acts of Parliament are signed by the Crown, the armed forces swear allegiance to the Crown, Ministers and officials serve the Crown… but the PM wields the Crown’s power… Therefore, PM is the de facto executive head of government.

The office represents the government. The Prime Minister is also the First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service. The PM is the administrative head of government.

So the PM has this extraordinary triumvirate of powers – legislative, monarchical or executive, and administrative – and No.10 encapsulates this.

These three forms of power all inevitably blur. Administrative can refer to the implementation of acts passed by the legislator, by parliament, or the implementation of policy set by the executive, the government, or other more bureaucratic functions such as appointments.

But the best way to think about it is to think about where the PM is when he is wielding that power.

When the PM is in the House of Commons, he is head of the legislature – head of parliament.

When the PM is in his office inside No.10, he is the head of the administration, Minister of the civil service, making the decisions that make government tick – including the power to appoint the Head of the Civil Service in the Cabinet Secretary and make decisions about the operation of government.

And when he sits at the head of the Cabinet table or stands in front of that podium outside of No.10, he is the Executive, effectively wielding the power of the monarch by directing Ministers of the Crown or announcing things in her name.

This is not written down in a constitution. We have a history of doing things by convention and precedent over hundreds of years. Some of it is codified, or set out in codes or ancient descriptions of parliamentary precedent, ministerial conduct and administrative practice.

The civil service and constitutional historian Sir Peter Hennessy calls it the ‘good chap theory of government’ – basically that in polite English society, among a club of gentlemen, it would be mad manners to break a code of conduct because to do otherwise would be “bad cricket”.

At best this is all rather sweet and twee, at worst it’s open to horrendous abuse. On the one hand it shows elitist English arrogance infects every sinew of the body politic – a country run by a minority from a select portion of English society, especially certain schools. On the other hand, British history has proven that a culture of government based on convention and good manners can be far more stable than a written constitution. France has had 14 constitutions since 1789.

But, the main thing to take away from looking at the door is just that –

the power of No.10, is largely presentational, but in our constitution, presentation is everything.

As long as MPs believe the PM in charge, his or her MPs will follow him or her.

As long as the civil service believe the PM in charge, administrators will do what he or she says.

As long as the public believe the PM is in charge, the Prime Minister is empowered to act in the name of the monarch.

We never formally took all of the Monarch’s power away – the civil war and the 1689 Bill of Rights forever changed the dynamic between Crown and Parliament, while various 19th and 20th century acts formerly stripped back some of the Monarch's power – but most of it has been eroded gradually by convention.

In effect, we just believe power sits with the Prime Minister because that’s what we voted for, and so the Crown and the Civil Service and armed forces that act in the name of the Crown go along with it.

… It’s ridiculous really. But British traditions are rather ridiculous. And you can see the turmoil in the US on 6th January 2021, codifying sovereignty in a constitution has its problems too because what if the President just ignores it?

But why this history is so relevant is that the most important thing about No.10 – the most important thing about how government really works – is that almost everything is done on the back of presentation and peculiar convention. So while the PM has this extraordinary power, No.10 itself only has power because the people in it are seen as being able to influence the PM and therefore bask in the shade of that power, formal, presentational and conventional.

So who works in No.10 and what are the important parts of it? I guess you better read Part 2...

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An explanation of how No.10 works, part 2: Private Office; Chief of Staff; Policy Unit; Delivery Unit.