The UK’s next prime minister should resist the urge to overhaul the structure of government departments or their own office, the Institute for Government has said, as the Conservative Party leadership contest picks up steam.
Although it can be tempting for an incoming prime minister to embark on a major reorganisation of the machinery of government, such changes would take up time that should be devoted to addressing urgent policy questions, Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the IfG, said in a briefing for PM hopefuls published today.
“New prime ministers will often come with preconceptions about how No.10 works, based on their experience of it from the outside and their views of how their predecessor did the job,” Haddon wrote.
“There are many ways it can work better, but when new governments change too much of how the centre operates this can take up valuable time and put No.10 on the back foot with departments.”
Likewise, machinery of government changes should not be taken lightly, she added.
“When Theresa May became Prime Minister, among her early changes were the creation of the Department for International Trade and the Department for Exiting the EU. She appointed David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox to key roles. All these early decisions would have a lasting effect on her premiership,” she said.
“By understanding better the organisation they inherit and the consequences of key decisions that must be made, a new prime minister will be better prepared to secure real change while in government.”
Several of the MPs who are standing for election as Conservative Party leader have said or hinted that they plan to scrap or consolidate departments if they are successful.
Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab has indicated he could embark on an aggressive cull, saying he wants to "cut down the number of Whitehall departments, cut out the bureaucracy", while former foreign secretary Boris Johnson has previously said he wants the Department for International Development to be subsumed into the Foreign Office.
Haddon also urged candidates not to wait until their first day in office to begin preparing for the role of prime minister.
Unlike many former prime ministers including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, who were leaders of the opposition before leading the country, Theresa May’s successor will not have spent years preparing for their new role, Haddon said.
“Preparation can be a very different experience for a leader of the opposition coming into government compared with a prime minister taking over while their party is in office.”
She urged the candidates to carve out time now to preparing for the role they hope to secure in the coming weeks.
They must be ready for an “unprecedented scale of decision-making and level of urgency”, and should therefore lay the groundwork by thinking about who they want to appoint to critical appointments both within No.10 and the cabinet, Haddon said.
“If there is no time to do this before taking office, take more time to make these key decisions when starting out."
Too few prospective prime ministers think about how they will adapt to the breadth of the role, scale of the workload, unexpected crises and government machinery, she added.
“We will be watching to see which candidates are putting in serious time and thought about what they want to achieve before inheriting the keys to 10 Downing Street.”