Could Theresa May's appointment prompt a rethink of how Whitehall does national security?

Theresa May arrives at Number 10 with years of experience on the government's key decision-making body on security. Dr Joe Devanny of the International Centre for Security Analysis takes a look at what the new government will mean for the way departments support prime ministers on national security issues

By Dr Joe Devanny

19 Jul 2016

Unlike David Cameron, who had five years in opposition to prepare for government, Theresa May has become prime minister following six years in one of the government’s most demanding jobs. It would be unsurprising, then, if May doesn’t follow Cameron in implementing an immediate blueprint of national security reforms.

Cameron’s May 2010 creation of the National Security Council (NSC) and a National Security Adviser relied on several years of planning, owing much to work overseen by Baroness Neville-Jones. The NSC shapes the government’s approach to national security, a broad corpus of issues ranging from foreign policy and the conduct of military operations, to the government’s approach to resilience and domestic threats such as terrorism, cyber-attacks.

As a long-serving home secretary, May already has considerable experience of domestic security and counter-terrorism policies. She certainly has more relevant experience than either Cameron or Tony Blair, neither of whom had held ministerial office before becoming prime minister. May’s six years of service on David Cameron’s NSC underlines her broader experience of defence and foreign policy decision-making. When the NSC meets this week – for the first time during her premiership – May will be the only continuously-serving member since its creation in 2010.

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The National Security Summit

Cameron devoted significant time and effort to the NSC process. The NSC has been praised for bringing together ministers and senior officials (intelligence and security chiefs, as well as the chief of the defence staff) in one forum, with regularity of process and frequency of meetings.

But May is not constrained by Cameron’s choices: new prime ministers often decide to change the structural framework or senior advisory roles at the centre of government. May could have abolished the NSC; she may yet amend its structures, or simply keep them as they are (albeit having reshuffled the NSC’s ministerial membership).

New cabinet, new NSC

The updated list of cabinet committees is yet to be released, but it looks likely from May’s cabinet picks that her NSC will mix continuity and change.

In addition to May, several members of Cameron’s final NSC remain in May’s Cabinet: Philip Hammond (now chancellor), Michael Fallon (who stays at defence), Amber Rudd (home) and the attorney general, Jeremy Wright. And May’s appointment of Liam Fox (pictured) as international trade secretary brings one of the NSC’s founding members back into government.

But concentrating on those who remain ignores the significance of who has gone: Cameron and Osborne were the dominant figures in the 2010-16 government, and their absence will inevitably lead to a different dynamic. May was ever-present in Cameron’s NSC, but she is now prime minister, responsible for shaping the NSC’s agenda, the undisputed leading voice in its discussions.

While we don’t yet know May’s mind regarding key issues, as Shashank Joshi argued recently, we can infer something from her previous statements and (conventional) voting record. Even if the overarching framework remains the 2015 National Security Strategy & Strategic Defence and Security Review (NSS/SDSR), there is much room for May to differentiate herself from Cameron on a wide range of issues, from Syria and Russia/Ukraine to domestic counter-extremism.

Cabinet-level membership of the NSC fluctuated under Cameron. Between 2010 and May 2015 it was a coalition NSC, with Nick Clegg and two other Liberal Democrats the junior partners in a Conservative-dominated body. While certain cabinet roles logically pointed to inclusion in the NSC (defence, home, foreign and international development), others made sense on grounds of seniority and relationship with the prime minister, such as the chancellor or (after his move from foreign secretary) William Hague as first secretary of state.

"It is likely that Liam Fox will be a strong and articulate voice on issues beyond his international trade brief"

If May follows Cameron’s lead in assembling her NSC, then new-comers are likely to be: foreign secretary Boris Johnson, the aforementioned Liam Fox, business secretary Greg Clark, international development secretary Priti Patel, and possibly David Davis, the new secretary of state for exiting the European Union. These new Cabinet ministers include several strong personalities with strong views on foreign policy: while Fox and Davis will be mostly preoccupied with their respectively demanding briefs, they will also be vocal in broader debates about foreign policy.

Fox’s unsuccessful leadership pitch majored on his experience in national security: he was Cameron’s first defence, a Foreign Office minister under John Major, and is on record recently criticising "Western appeasement" of Russian president Vladimir Putin. It is likely that Fox will be a strong and articulate voice on issues beyond his international trade brief.

Similarly, while May has been in the NSC for the whole duration of the Syria conflict, David Davis has, from the backbenches, consistently voted against UK intervention in Syria since August 2013, and abstained from a 2014 vote for anti-IS strikes in Iraq. He has more recently criticised the "huge failure of Western foreign and security policy" towards Syria and the wider region. A minister of state at the Foreign Office during the mid-1990s conflict in Bosnia, Davis has broader experience to bring to bear on the NSC’s wider discussions.

Most of the headlines have, of course, been captured by Boris Johnson’s elevation to the post of foreign secretary. With Davis and Fox leading on two major foreign policy issues from outside the Foreign Office, there is a question about precisely what role Johnson will play, especially when prime ministers are much involved in foreign affairs, reducing further the latitude afforded to foreign secretaries.

John Mackintosh, in his classic work The British Cabinet, argues that the relationship between prime minister and foreign secretary usually falls "into one of three patterns: a prime minister conducting external affairs with the aid of a compliant foreign secretary, complete harmony between the two…or a strong secretary of state who was trusted and given his head by the premier." Time will tell which of these is closer to the mark with May and Johnson.

May’s new cast of characters will inevitably have an impact on the nature of NSC debates, but the most consequential change is May herself as prime minister. It will be interesting to watch for evidence of differences between the decisions made by May’s NSC and those made under Cameron, as well as the near-inevitable leaks that will offer a degree of insight into decision-making within her administration.

New supporting structures?

Less eye-catching, Oliver Letwin (pictured) has left the government after six years at the Cabinet Office, during which time he performed an unobtrusively important role for Cameron, including on civil contingencies and overseeing SDSR implementation. It is unclear which, if any, minister will fill this Letwin-shaped hole for May and ensure the coherence, coordination and political oversight of Whitehall’s national security machinery.

May possibly intends to drive this process herself, which would require a significant investment of her time, chairing committees and taking stock of implementation. Absent a Letwin figure, the extra weight will probably be carried by National Security Adviser Mark Lyall Grant. I would expect parliamentary questions or select committee hearings to probe these new arrangements at the earliest opportunity.

As prime minister, David Cameron made several national security-related changes to the machinery of government. These included the May 2015 establishment of implementation taskforces on tackling extremism in communities and the risk posed by people returning from Syria, and the six joint units created following the 2015 NSS/SDSR to improve policy-making and delivery in areas ranging from counter-terrorism to UN peacekeeping. It will be interesting to see whether May changes any of these arrangements to fit better with her intended approach to the issues.

The relatively large national security secretariat created by Sir Peter Ricketts in 2010 has been pared back over time, both in total size and in senior leadership, with a fluctuating number of deputy national security advisers. Lyall Grant has defended the configuration of the secretariat’s capacity, explaining that it is "mainly a co-ordinating" body, with the substantive work still the responsibility of line departments.

If May chooses to retain this configuration, she must rely on her cabinet ministers to deliver both implementation and new policy ideas. On the other hand, if she chooses to involve herself more directly in shaping national security policy, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that she will need to enhance central capacity to support her, whether in the Cabinet Office or Number 10. There are a number of ways to do this, including the two I sketch briefly below.

First, May could apply the government’s thinking about extended ministerial offices (EMOs) to the national security space. The idea underpinning this system is that ministers can make a larger number of appointments from outside of the civil service, to improve the diversity, experience and flexibility of their closest team of advisers. This might involve a politically-appointed adjunct to the national security secretariat, or even a separate part of the new prime minister’s policy unit. This would be more than a symbolic choice: the former would work for the whole of the NSC, but the latter would be dedicated to serving prime ministerial priorities. Such a group of advisers might provide a useful check, challenge and competitive analysis of official advice and strategic thinking offered up to ministers.

Second, under Gordon Brown’s premiership (2007–10), a body called the national security former (NSF) was convened to offer alternative perspectives and independent expertise on national security issues. A structured form of external outreach like this could help to improve the flow of advice and new perspectives for the NSC to consider. There are a number of examples from abroad that could be emulated, including the United States, where presidential boards of established external experts and retired officials have long been a source of independent advice to complement that offered by the career bureaucracy.

The shape of things to come?

The crucial issue is what kind of prime minister May intends to be. It is unlikely that any modern prime minister could, or would want to, wholly outsource national security issues to secretaries of state and line departments. But prime ministerial time is at a premium and difficult choices must be made about where to concentrate and when to delegate. These choices will shape May’s decisions about the structure of her supporting machinery and the number of her advisers.

Even if changes are to happen, they might not happen quickly: if May initially has few fixed ideas about national security reforms, she will be content to see how the system works for her in practice, amending processes and structures as and when necessary.

But the role of the prime minister is so central in this area of government, that the start of May’s administration is a major opportunity for a fresh look at how Whitehall supports prime ministers to make national security decisions.

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