Book review: Where power lies behind the black door of No.10

Despite its relatively compact proportions, No. 10 Downing Street packs a hefty historical punch. Sue Cameron peruses the pages of researcher-in-residence Jack Brown’s new book

Photo: PA

By Sue Cameron

13 Sep 2019

One of the most striking features of No.10 Downing Street is how small it is compared to the White House, the Élysée Palace or the Berlin Chancellery. As Charles Powell, a top adviser to Margaret Thatcher, put it: “There are no hierarchies, things don’t have to wind their way up through the bureaucracy, if you wanted to know the prime minister’s view you stuck your head round the door and said, you know, ‘prime minister, nuclear war or do we surrender?’” The great advantage of this intimacy was that “you got a clear instruction and you could transmit it to the rest of Whitehall”. In his eminently readable book No. 10 – The Geography of Power in Downing Street, Jack Brown looks at how the building itself has shaped the nerve centre of British government. The author, the first ever researcher-in-residence at No. 10, turns up no sensational political revelations but he brings alive the workings of this extraordinary old house in a way others rarely do. On almost every page there are fascinating insights into the prime ministers and officials who have lived and worked there.

We are given a wealth of detail, some delightfully trivial, some tragic. There is prime minister Harold Macmillan banning his grandchildren from using their tricycles in the front hall on cabinet days, and Thatcher’s officials not going up to the flat when she was in her curlers. Churchill and Anthony Eden liked working from bed which caused problems – sometimes the most secret telegrams were made from the bed.

Ultimately Eden’s premiership was overwhelmed by the Suez crisis. Those who have been in No.10 when a PM falls speak of how all power seems suddenly to leave the building. Certainly we all watched that happening to Theresa May. Readers of Jack Brown’s book might be surprised at how often the past resonates with the present. Sir Robert Walpole, our first PM, had to resign after losing a vote of confidence. So too did Lord North – the one who lost the American colonies. Both men were old Etonians…

“Private secretaries would follow Harold Wilson into ‘the most politically active loo in the country’ to brief him without Marcia Williams interfering”

The echoes of the past are even louder when it comes to civil servants. Robert Armstrong, former principal private secretary to both Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, notes that “proximity is power”. There is always a scramble for desks close to a new PM but few are physically closer than officials in the private office, next door to the cabinet room where PMs often work.

The tradition that private office staff do not change when the government changes dates back to the 1920s but the arrival of Boris Johnson brought reports that he would dispense with his principal private secretary Peter Hill. Mind, prime ministers often start off deeply suspicious of officials but within a few weeks change their minds and wonder how they managed without them. Hill is staying put for the time being. Eden wanted to remove his principal private secretary Tim Bligh but Bligh refused to budge and “cohabited” with his chosen successor until the following election.

Nobody should think that the current outrage over Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s senior political adviser, is anything new. Harold Wilson’s political secretary, Marcia Williams, later Lady Falkender, commandeered a room off the cabinet room where she acted as Wilson’s all-powerful and hugely controversial gatekeeper. Private secretaries would follow Wilson into what Jack Brown describes as “the most politically active loo in the country” so they could brief him without her interfering. Wilson himself often used the lift from the study which brought him down past her door so she couldn’t see him.

This book is full of such gems which make it a delight to read. It will also be an essential guide for all students of politics as to how No.10 really operates.

❱ No. 10 – The Geography of Power at Downing Street
❱ Jack Brown
❱ Haus Publishing
❱ £18.99

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