• C. Peters

How the new Office of the Prime Minister is going to work...

Overnight, a few hundred Whitehall staff have found themselves working for the most high profile office in politics. The reality is though, as many of those staff have privately admitted, their new office is just a smokescreen to distract attention from that story.

In the modern age, where you sit in the Whitehall food chain is denoted by an email address - @no10.gov.uk is at the top, followed by @hmtreasury.gov.uk, and @cabinetoffice.gov.uk, @fcdo.gov.uk, @homeoffice.gov.uk, and @mod.gov.uk all fight it out for third place, largely determined by what the issue they’re working on is. The Prime Minister’s supposed new staff are not even getting that sexy ‘10’ in the body of the address. This is because all these staff already worked for the Prime Minister. Any changes seem to be almost entirely cosmetic.

As set out in Parts 1 of How Cabinet Office Works and How No.10 Works, Cabinet Office is literally in Number 10’s backyard - or No.10 is in Cabinet Office’s backyard - the buildings blur into each other with only a secured door as a barrier. As a metaphor for the relationship, Number 10 staff can come and go as they please through this barrier, Cabinet Office officials need to be invited. Cabinet Office is No.10’s lapdog, stand, sit and walk when told, but is not only allowed into the fancy front room on rare occasions. The teams that have been reallocated to the Office of the Prime Minister already saw the PM as the minister they really report into and No.10 as the team they must really please.

Almost every team in government reports in some way or form to a minister, aside from the two main Cabinet Office teams that have just been transferred. The Economic and Domestic Secretariat (EDS) coordinates Cabinet and write arounds (see How Cabinet Office Works Part 2) for economic and domestic departments (almost all of them), and the National Security Secretariat (NSS) coordinates security issues between the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office, Home Office and domestic and international security agencies such as Mi5 and Mi6. Technically, EDS and NSS report to the Cabinet Secretary, the head of the Civil Service, but all officials in those teams know that their priorities are the Prime Minister’s and their power and influence is directly related to their relationship they have with No.10 officials. The Cabinet Secretary is too busy, and too unfocused and (this one) too inept and inexperienced to be bothered with, which means in practice EDS and NSS work to the Prime Minister and Number 10. The Office for the Prime Minister changes little to nothing.

This announcement is mostly a puff of smoke. The Cabinet Office is always used as a smoke screen by the PM and Number 10. Almost every time you hear the Prime Minister announcing a new ‘taskforce’, a Cabinet Office team is thrown together - usually made up of people who worked on another ‘taskforce’ that was set up to pretend to deal with a prior problem. As set out in Part 3 of How the Cabinet Office Works, a Taskforce tends to be an indication that the government has no idea how to tackle a problem so a team is set up to give the veiled impression of action. This team then commissions departments to tell them what they’re doing about a problem, usually the inadequate things the department is already doing. By sitting in the centre of government, the Cabinet Office team has the advantage of pulling all these things together from all over government and bringing them together in something that appears like an announcement worthy package that could add up to more than the sum of its parts. If the Prime Minister or Chancellor really cares, then more money is offered up, a policy previously considered too politically difficult is announced, or sometimes a major reorganisation of government policy teams is set off to actually try and get to grips with the problem - the Vaccines Taskforce is a successful example, the Supply Chain Taskforce an example of something you never heard of because it was an abject failure.

The new Office for the Prime Minister (OPM) shouldn’t change any of this. Most of the big ‘taskforces’ are, and will remain, in the parts of the Cabinet Office that haven’t been moved, namely the Covid Taskforce and the EU Exit Transition Taskforce. These are winding down, with their staff being thrown at the random ‘taskforces’ on supply chains, small boats, Afghan refugee resettlement, cost of living, violence against women, depending on which issue the government is pretending to fix that day. But these smaller ‘taskforces’ - I keep saying taskforce, committees of government officials that report to a Cabinet Office Minister or sometimes Prime Minister - are ultimately coordinated by EDS or NSS, which themselves report on progress to No.10.

So, to summarise, a ‘taskforce’ is random group of officials from Cabinet Office brought together to cause bureaucratic chaos and commission departments trying to tackle a major issue, who will then report in to a smaller cluster of random officials in EDS or NSS, who then report into a senior figure in No.10, a private secretary, head of the No.10 Policy Unit or even Chief of Staff, who then report back to the Prime Minister. Or, if it’s a minor issue, replace ‘senior figure in No.10’ with a ‘Director General’ (head of a group) in Cabinet Office, sometimes the Cabinet Secretary (head of the Civil Service) and onto to the CDL - most senior Cabinet Office Minister (see How Cabinet Office works Part 2). Treasury officials meanwhile will either completely ignore the process or butt in and try to derail it as to not spend money if they are worried it has political momentum (see How HM Treasury Works). This is how government works, bloated chains with different email addresses telling the Prime Minister what’s going on and - if he really wants to fix it - he’ll have to fight with the Chancellor about it.

However, there might be more to this puff of smoke than meets the eye. The ember of this smoke bomb might set a slow fire that could put much of the Cabinet Office to the torch. EDS and NSS, as well as the other smaller central coordination teams that transferred over to the new OPM, are the only parts of the Cabinet Office that served its real true function to run Cabinet Government (see How Cabinet Office of Works Part 1). They are made up of a few hundred staff in a department that, until this announcement, had over 9000. If the OPM takes on main responsibilities of the Cabinet Office, the reason it justified its existence, the Cabinet Office has no reason to exist. Indeed, with 91000 job cuts pledged this month, a big chunk look set to come from the Cabinet Office which will be doing, well, what exactly? Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary/ Chief Operating Officer of the Civil Service Alex Chisholm, told staff last week that the Cabinet Office will serve as a “corporate headquarters” for the civil service. So the Cabinet Office will do HR and… IT?

The Office of the Prime Minister is a cosmetic rebrand, for it only confirms what was already true - the serious part of the Cabinet Office works to and for the Prime Minister. If EDS and NSS get that No.10 email address, which they will within a year or two, then another issue that I set out in How Cabinet Office Works Part 3 will be solved - those officials will no longer be neural, those officials will know who they work for. The damage the parties have done to the reputation of the government have served to prove one thing long known but rarely said - this is not a Cabinet Government, there is no “collective agreement”, this is the Prime Minister’s government for good and for ill.

Whatever you think of this PM, I assure you from working in government that this change can only be a good thing in the long term - it clarifies responsibilities, cuts the away the bureaucratic meat from the fat, and finally those teams in the heart of government will not be under any illusion they are ‘neutral’ which is a toxic motivation when it was never really true. There is one thing worse than not agreeing with who you work for - that’s not knowing who you work for at all. The Cabinet Office has long been a pointless yet powerful institution and a few parties next door have effectively burned it down. Collateral damage maybe, but damage that needed to be done.

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