Plans for prime minister's department scrapped, Dowden confirms

No need to create "Office of the Prime Minister" that Boris Johnson said would "fix" No.10 post-Partygate, minister says
Photo: Giannis Alexopoulos/NurPhoto/Alamy Stock Photo

Plans to create the “Office of the Prime Minister” envisioned by Boris Johnson ended with his time in government, Oliver Dowden has confirmed.

The former PM said in January 2022 that he would create a new department for No.10 led by a permanent secretary, in response to the first findings of Sue Gray’s investigation into the Partygate scandal. The office – which he later referred to as the “prime minister’s department” – would help to “fix” No.10, he said.

But the top Cabinet Office minister said yesterday that there is no longer a “need” for such an entity.

Scottish National Party MP Patrick Grady asked Dowden in parliament what had happened to Johnson’s plans for the Office of the Prime Minister, which he said was to be “like something out of The West Wing, which, of course, was a work of fiction, much like a lot of Boris Johnson’s premiership”.

He asked: “In the words of a character from The West Wing, is the Office of the prime minister still ‘a thing’?”

Dowden responded: “Within the hierarchy of Whitehall, Downing Street sits within the Cabinet Office. I have found that the way it works best – I think that this is the prime minister’s view as well – is that the Cabinet Office supports Downing Street in the performance of its functions, so I do not think there is a need to create a separate Office of the Prime Minister beyond the existing Downing Street capabilities.”

Gray’s report of her initial findings – which came four months before her main report – said failures of leadership and judgement, blurred lines of accountability, and a No.10 operation that has expanded without sufficient structures to keep it in check all contributed to a “serious failure” to observe the highest standards during the Covid pandemic.

Former private healthcare boss Samantha Jones was named as interim No.10 permanent secretary in February 2022, and two months later was said to be looking to significantly reduce the number of senior officials who work directly for the PM.

Jones quietly left the role last summer and was named a non-executive director at the Department of Health and Social Care this February.

Johnson also promised a review of the civil service code, as well as the code for special advisers – neither of which ever materialised.

There has been much speculation on the future of the department since Johnson’s departure in September.

In February, MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee wrote to civil service chief operating officer Sir Alex Chisholm asking him to clarify whether the Office of the Prime Minister would be created – as Johnson had implied – as a “distinct government department”.

“If this will not be constituted as a new department, I would be grateful if you could clarify its status and what its relationship with the Cabinet Office will be,” PACAC chair William Wragg said.

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