• C. Peters

How No.10 Works - Part 2

Updated: May 14

The Power behind the throne… behind the throne

We obsess about advisers and the role they play in politics. There is an oeuvre of satire out there about it, whether it is about perceived power of Cummings under Boris Johnson… or Nick Timothy under Theresa May… or Alastair Campbell under Tony Blair.

But it is a justified obsession. Such advisers wield significant behind power behind the metaphorical throne on which the PM sits, and as discussed in part one, the PM’s power itself derives from the actual throne. So this blog is about the power behind the throne, behind the throne...

Cummings in his pomp was known to take most of all his meetings in the Cabinet room. In most cases when “Dom” spoke, the decision was made. Cummings was not formally given this authority, it was just assumed that he spoke for the PM, and he acted like he did because he thought he did… and he did until, well, he didn’t… The short reign of Cummings was all undone by the pandemic. It was assumed that such a major decisions such as a national lockdown can only be made by the PM and the decision making apparatus collapsed in the PM’s hesitancy. The PM rejected Cummings’s instincts to lockdown last autumn and Dom was suddenly no longer all powerful. Because Cummings was no longer seen to speak for the PM, he didn’t. This left a vacuum of authority, which has never since been plugged.

Interestingly, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell were given formal powers by Tony Blair – but this was seemingly to empower them to boss around Gordon Brown and his team in the Treasury. Every senior adviser since wields power not through formality but through proximity to the PM. Under Blair is the first and only time advisers have been given formal authority equivalent to a senior Minister of the crown. They just didn’t need to, because No.10 works in such a way that just having the email address gives the colour of power.

Even the most authoritative Prime Minister’s seek counsel. Others can be infamously fickle and have a tendency to agree with the last person they speak to, naming no names. So the whole game for those trying to influence government from both the inside and the outside is working out who the Hell that is likely to be.

And there’s always a few candidates:

1. No.10 Private Office

Private Office are a team of ten or so Private Secretaries, of which the most senior is the Principal Private Secretary – for those familiar with the show, this is the role of Bernard from Yes Minister. Private Office control everything the PM sees – in essence what papers goes into the (red) “box” that he or she is meant to read every night and weekend to make non-immediate decisions from everything from policy, to spending, to which visits to go on, to who to appoint to certain posts.

Private Office control almost everything the PM says, at least in terms of written instructions within government. They determine what the PM sees and interpret what the PM’s says – what goes in and what comes out of the “box”. These are otherwise known as the “read-outs”, the decisions, instructions to officials, usually a tick next to a recommendation or a short comment in red pen. Private Office control who sees the PM – Cummings has been on record complaining even he had limited access to Boris – and where the PM goes, his schedule, his diary, his visits, his transportation. Private Office may even have a say over what he eats, some practically act as butlers as well as advisers, confidants and secretaries.

In short, Private Office is all powerful... Aside from the fact they are meant to be apolitical, not meant to offer their opinion by tradition, and are meant to adapt to serve the needs and wants of the PM. Private Office is the one constant in No.10 but it is not in charge, because it is not appropriate for a Private Secretary to be seen to be making decisions… although few would know if they ever did. So while they do not make the decisions, they can shape decisions by controlling what the PM’s sees and who he speaks to. Private Office should be unreachable to outsiders, and unscruntable by insiders, but what should be is not always so...

2. Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff

Tony Blair had Jonathan Powell, David Cameron had Ed Llewelyn, Theresa May had Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, and Boris Johnson had Dan Rosenfeld and now Steve Barclay MP. They are the Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister. Modelled on the White House example, the Chief of Staff is the most senior adviser to the PM.

The most powerful Chief of Staff are effectively the chief enforcer, chief policy and political adviser to the PM, and also chief executive of Downing Street – but too often they bite off more they can chew and those that take on all these responsibilities get overwhelmed by it. Either they are paralysed by too much responsibility, or they are associated with every decision and therefore every mistake - Theresa May’s Chiefs of Staff suffered from these problems. And, as soon as they are seen as weak, they tend to be either sacked or slowly undermined. A disempowered Chief of Staff creates a vacuum of authority. An over-powerful chief is too overwhelmed to be accessible or effective, so the game for those that want to have some sway over government becomes who is influencing them?

The most low profile on the other hand tend to know their limits. Jonathan Powell and Ed Llewelyn had the reputation of acting more as Chief Operating Officer of Downing Street and offered advice on only the most significant decisions but generally were councillors and managers – not the power behind the throne. This meant there are other influential advisers counselling the PM, so who are they?

3. No.10 Press Office and “the political team”

Famously encapsulated by Malcolm Tucker, Press Office and the political team are made up of appointed special advisers, usually from Party HQ, that either work on comms or parliamentary and stakeholder handling.

Press Office and the political team have five core responsibilities:

1. Brief the press and come up with “top lines” on issues of the day

2. Draft lines and brief the PM and Ministers for interviews and questions

3. Work with the Whips – a team of MPs and Peers - to ensure votes get through Parliament

4. Suggest policy or announcements that capture media attention

5. Control “The Grid” – a mega spreadsheet of planned announcements for the entire of government (if a department doesn’t get a “grid slot” their policy doesn’t get announced)

You could argue that No.10 Press Office and the “political team” are the most perfunctory and subservient part of No.10, with the power of only protecting their principal (the PM) and his/her agenda. But there’s another argument to say it is the most powerful part of the entire state. The answer might be both.

The weakness of Press Office and the political team is that staff turnover is usually high, rarely people outside No.10 and the Party machine know their names, and if they do then its usually due to a scandal. The other obvious weakness is this part of No.10 is more obsessed with headlines and winning votes than policy.

However, headlines and winning votes is what No.10 is all about – and this Prime Minister is more obsessed by the press than any other… This is why we have seen dozens of U-turns at the first sign of trouble and headlines consistently prioritised over the substance of policy. The Rwanda refugee scheme is the most flagrant example of such high-profile under-prepared policies in recent times, but from childcare to Channel 4 other half-baked media-bate ideas seem to be a weekly occurrence at present - suggesting the pressure the Press Office and “political team” are putting on the government policy agenda.

As a collective, the Press Office and “political team” of advisers are extremely influential but very rarely is this embodied by any one individual (Alastair Campbell being a notable exception), while the priorities of this part of No.10 obviously change with the political wind. It is a rare government in this modern age whose priorities don’t change with the political wind too, which suggests the power of this part of No.10. The most effective of these teams may even make the political wind… but it is a rare government that does that these days too, unless it is covering up their farts.

This is also the team that will tell the PM which Ministers to chose during a reshuffle, that will tell the Ministers what to say, will brief MPs, brief journalists, work with the Whips (who keep MPs in line), and leak to journalists to undermine their enemies. This is the team that shapes what the government says, what it does, and what people think about it. But they’re rarely a team that thinks for themselves, they rarely have time for it… the press and political team usually just react. Thinking is for Policy Unit.

4. No.10 Policy Unit

If the Press Office and the Political Team are the eyes, ears, and mouth of government, No.10 Policy Unit is the brains trust of No.10. A twenty to thirty person team, if that, Policy Unit brief the PM on policy decisions and work with press office and the political team on announcements. They also commission departments to come up with policy responses, and work closely with departments on policy development. If a department wants a policy approved, Policy Unit must sign off. Private Office won’t cite the PM on a domestic policy decision with Policy Unit comment. Press office won’t announce anything without Policy Unit involvement.

Policy Unit has been relatively stable and constant part of the No.10 machine. Policy Unit, heads of which have included David Miliband (brother of Ed) under Blair, Jo Johnson (brother of Boris) under Cameron, and Munira Mirza under Johnson, has existed in some form since Harold Wilson was Prime Minister in 1974. Its weakness is that it is a small team that usually focus on just top priorities. It also doesn’t have as much access to the PM as the others I just mentioned – it is liable to get gazumped by the press and political team and is dependent on a good relationship with private office.

The Head of the Policy Unit is never in charge, members of Policy Unit are rarely the loudest voices in the building… but they are always in the PM’s inner circle, and usually are more accessible than the more shadowy parts of No.10. A member of Policy Unit has far more influence than any junior Minister, and its head has more influence and authority over the government’s priorities than most Cabinet Ministers, if not all other than the Chancellor. But too often members of No.10 Policy Unit are too stretched, too inexperienced and too dependent on the whims of the PM to really utilise this power. The weakness of No.10 Policy Unit, is that policy is rarely prioritised over politics.

5. Random team to capture the mood of the day (including Delivery Unit or Prime Minister’s Implementation Unit, and “10DS”)

Finally, there’s the other parts of No.10 that are moderately relevant. Most notable, is probably No.10 Delivery Unit. This is a team so out of the No.10 loop they don’t even sit in No.10, although these days they do have No.10 email addresses (their predecessor team had to make do with Cabinet Office ones). They used to be on Great Smith Street, a 20 minute walk away from the hallowed House - which they were rarely invited to. Now they’re in Admiralty House, a beautiful building on Horse Guards Parade, just a 5 minute walk away. Their job is to monitor the progress of policy implementation and work with Departments to identify problems. Mostly, they’re data wonks, at best consultants on policy.

They’re almost never a power base and rarely have much influence, except for a few months of every Prime Minister’s administration when they start getting obsessed by delivery and Delivery Unit (or whatever it’s called at a given time) have a moment in the sun. This almost always is in the summer until a scandal or event changes the political wind and Delivery Unit goes back into its shadows.

There’s occasionally other teams in No.10 that come and go with the political wind that are fleetingly influential. One of the best named ones at the moment is called 10DS – a team of data scientists that Cummings brought in (10 DS being quite a clever pun on 10 Downing Street data scientists). The next PM will have a similar innovation – cue Team DownInstagraming Streetz under Liz Truss.

What have we learned?

No.10 is not a fixed institution, it is shaped to the preferences of the Prime Minister – although for the past twenty five years it has broadly taken this shape of:

· Private Office

· Press Office & the Political Team

· Policy Unit

· Delivery Unit

Other parts that link to No.10 include the National Security team, but that formerly sits in Cabinet Office, and Whips office, but that sits in the Houses of Parliament.

The best way to think about it is to think of a medieval court. Whoever has the King’s ear has influence and therefore power – but that power does not last. At the top those advisers they are either like Jaffar in Aladdin – all powerful but that power crumbles (like Nick Timothy or Dominic Cummings) – or like Zazu in Lion King, a wise counsel but do not make decisions (Jonathan Powell or Ed Llewelyn)

Of course, the power of No.10 is directly aligned to the administratively poisonous question: “will they still be in charge by the next election?”

The PM’s power is largely presentational, so the presentation of a weak PM actually has an administrative impact. Ministers and senior civil servants might drag their feet on instruction. May not even ask the PM for his position. Cabinet might be in paralysis, Cabinet Office ministers and officials, the Treasury or individual Ministers might be even so presumptive as to make decisions themselves…

But more on Cabinet Office, Treasury, Ministerial office and the roles within them in the blogs to come.

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