After a brief apology to the House of Commons for his mistakes during the partygate scandal, the prime minister tried to get on the front foot by announcing changes to the way he runs No.10 and the Cabinet Office. He was responding to Sue Gray’s report which criticised “fragmented and complicated” Downing Street structures that have sometimes “led to the blurring of lines of accountability”. Johnson proposes an Office of the Prime Minister with a permanent secretary to lead it.
Johnson is focusing on one of the problems with No.10 – that its operation needs restructuring and that as it has got larger the responsibility on his principal private secretary is too great. But he is avoiding the other critique – of his leadership and approach to decision-making.
A new permanent secretary will fail if Johnson continues to treat No.10 as a chaotic court
To some extent, No.10 is always a court, where special advisers and civil servants compete for the attention of the boss. But under Johnson, the jostling for influence has been extreme. He prefers chaotic decision making because it allows him to master the confusion, but this has led to disorder in Whitehall, uncertainty over what decisions have been made and ineffective government. Gray’s work shows that it has failed and that it is long since time for Johnson to employ a more disciplined approach.
Whether there is a new permanent secretary or not, No.10 will be dominated by two key jobs because it is both a political and a government operation. The top No.10 civil servant must have the final say on which official advice is commissioned by No.10 and how it is presented to the prime minister and have the authority to transmit his decisions out to the wider government machine.
The prime minister’s most senior political adviser needs to assert a similar grip over the political and parliamentary advice in No.10. They must align the special advisers in the policy unit, press office and across the rest of No.10 with the prime minister’s mission and act as enforcer for those who step out of line, as well as being a core link to the parliamentary party.
A top priority is to rebuild trust in a shattered No.10 team
These leaders in No.10, most importantly the prime minister himself, need to restore trust and confidence in what must be a shattered team. Perhaps at times Johnson’s stonewalling on attendance at parties was an attempt to shield his staff. But on other occasions, he has seemed to blame others who failed to inform him about the Covid rules or who organised suspiciously convivial “work events”.
Johnson promises a clear-out in his office but will struggle to recruit new top civil servants. And a tranche of high-profile sackings risks making things worse. Few officials with an eye to their long-term careers would want to get caught in the web of Johnson’s scandals.
So he will need to offer robust reassurances. Gray points out that “staff wanted to raise concerns about behaviours they witnessed at work but at times felt unable to do so”. That means a complete overhaul of whistleblowing procedures in No.10 is needed. Most importantly, if No.10 is going to be able to focus on Johnson’s priorities, the prime minister will need to start maintaining and enforcing higher ethical standards to end these constant distractions. This might not be the top priority for the public, but properly strengthening the system of standards would show that Johnson really does “get it”.
No reorganisation can make up for the lack of a clear mission for the government and the country
Then if the prime minister wants to fundamentally improve his No.10 operation, he needs a stronger mission for his government. Brexit and Covid are no longer motivating factors and resting on former glories will not help with future ambitions. “Levelling up and uniting the nation” is the plan, but so far there is little sense that this truly animates Johnson’s government. Without a mission, No.10 will be listless, underpowered and distracted, unable to mould the dozens of major decisions government makes each day into something like a coherent whole.
Doing that has always been – and will always remain – the responsibility of the prime minister. Careful restructures can be useful to revive a team. But that is a second order issue. For as long as he is prime minister the character of the government will be determined by the court of Boris Johnson.
Alex Thomas is a programme director leading the Institute for Government's work on policymaking and the civil service