Damian Green, the Cabinet Office minister named first secretary of state in Theresa May’s government reshuffle, has said the beefed-up role in the central department will focus on cross-Whitehall policy coordination to “make sure things happen on the ground”.
In an interview with CSW’s sister title The House, Green said that role would ensure the prime minister’s reform plans – on education, social justice and on the economy – did not get side-lined by Brexit.
“You can’t park the domestic agenda and say ‘all we’re going to do is Brexit for the next two years’, overwhelmingly important though that is to our future prosperity,” he said.
“My role is to make sure that the system works well and smoothly, both in terms of allowing people to express a view and for there to be proper collective discussion – but also that things happen, that they don’t just get stalled in the system. That’s one of the tasks I’ve been set by the prime minister.”
Green’s appointment as May’s new right-hand man last week was seen as a sign of a possible shift towards a softer Brexit. The Remain backer – Green served on the board of Stronger In – has been one of the most consistent pro-Europeans on the Tory benches.
The government remains as committed to getting “the best deal for Britain” as it did before the election, he said. “The deal needs to keep Britain outward-looking, global focused, in favour of free trade. Those are the principles that infused the prime minister’s Lancaster House speech, and that is what we take into these negotiations.”
Green also said that the Whitehall working environment “will change” following the election.
Theresa May’s two most senior Downing Street advisors – Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – quit after the Conservatives lost their majority in Thursday’s general election.
The two have been blamed for a “toxic” atmosphere in No.10, and for hobbling the decision-making process, amid reports that policy would often be agreed by officials – only to be ripped up when it was sent for sign-off by the “gatekeepers”. “The prime minister’s team ran a coach and horses through the civil service rule book and no one seemed interested in stopping them,” one senior civil servant told the Times.
Green says he always “worked well” with the pair – “I didn’t find it as difficult as it has been reported, and inevitably reports are always partial” – and rejects claims that the prime minister’s inner circle has been unreceptive to outside advice.
“I’ve worked with her for four years as a Home Office minister. She has always had a clear view of what she thinks should happen, she knows the detail. But she also wants to drive through the changes she wants,” he says. “If you can convince her the evidence suggests we should do X, rather than Y, she will listen and take that decision.”
He adds: “I’ve worked on both sides of this – I’ve worked as an official in No. 10, a minister in spending departments, and now I’m working back at the centre, as it were – and there are always these complaints about interference from the centre. Similarly the centre always complains about departments wanting to do their own thing. It’s just one of the eternal lessons of the British government system that to some extent the shoe will always rub.”
But he adds that it is now his job to “minimise that rubbing” as much as possible. “It will change. All administrations evolve over time, and this is certainly a big change in the way we work."
Green added that the government has a “very, very challenging parliament ahead” with both Brexit and domestic reforms requiring Whitehall attention.
“People will see in the years ahead a prime minister who is getting on with implementing a set of ideas that are about bringing the country together and making sure that these are being addressed in a serious way by a serious-minded government,” he added.
Asked how long May would remain prime minister at the head of a minority government, Green said: “For as far ahead as I can see.”
He says May’s premiership will be judged on its success in this task, not on the instability of the last few days.
“People will see in the years ahead a prime minister who is getting on with implementing a set of ideas that are about bringing the country together and making sure that these are being addressed in a serious way by a serious-minded government.”
It’s a point he urges his Tory colleagues, on the backbenches and in the Cabinet, to remember over the coming weeks.
“There are really serious problems facing this country now. Every Conservative MP needs to pull together so that we can deal with the problems in the country,” he says.
“That’s what you get elected to Parliament for – to cope with the problems of your constituency, and the country. And the country will be served best by having a government with a sense of purpose, supported by a parliamentary party with the same sense of purpose.”
Read the full interview here