It was only in 2001 that a re-elected Tony Blair got serious about reshaping the centre of government to meet his style of government. David Cameron, like his predecessors, suffered a number of false starts in 2010 – some self-inflicted and some a result of trying to work out how to adapt to the demands of coalition. This time around he has had a chance to think through the support he needs to govern effectively.
The first thing to note is that there is continuity at Number 10. The key posts of chief of staff (Ed Llewellyn) and principal private secretary (Chris Martin) stay the same. Along with cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, they are at the forefront of making sure the government functions – which they do surprisingly effectively.
They now need to support the Prime Minister with a slim majority and need to focus on his top priority of renegotiating the UK’s relationship with Europe. It’s no surprise therefore that Llewellyn, who typically concentrates on foreign affairs, is now the prime minister’s personal envoy on European issues, supported by two experienced deputies. The Institute for Government (IfG) has argued that continuity is good, but the PM will need to guard against a wholesale change at some point in his premiership.
Downing Street moves to tighten grip on Whitehall with new "Implementation Taskforces"
Dear prime minister: now is the time to reboot the centre of government
IfG: Whitehall restructures must be more focused
Cyber security and central government
Where there is change is at the Policy Unit. The unit went through a variety of incarnations in Cameron’s first term. It started as a small, mainly political operation under James O’Shaughnessy, serving both PM and deputy prime minister, and then become a bigger, more official dominated unit under Paul Kirby. By the end of the last parliament, headed by a minister (Jo Johnson) for the first time, the Policy Unit was much more political in nature, and focussed again on the prime minister, while Nick Clegg built up his own operation. And in its latest incarnation, after the election, the PM announced the Policy Unit would be led by Sunday Times columnist Camilla Cavendish.
Cavendish is drawn from the long line of Policy Unit heads who have been journalists and think tank-ers. She stands out mainly because she is only the second ever female head of the unit. Her challenge, having not worked with him before, is to make sure she is immediately on the prime minister’s wavelength, to build credibility as his voice into Whitehall and with his ministers, and to make the unit itself more than the sum of the individuals working in it.
Managing the machine
In the UK system, Number 10 is a small, personalised, and political operation to support the prime minister in their many roles. As I have previously argued in the IfG's Centre Forward report, that means the prime minister needs to have mechanisms beyond Downing Street to ensure his priorities are pursued.
Straight after the 2010 election, David Cameron established a senior National Security Council to meet weekly after Cabinet under his chairmanship. It was also attended by military and intelligence heads and supported by an expanded National Security Secretariat, headed by a national security adviser.
This was judged a successful institutional innovation, in particular for bringing clarity to where decisions were made – although it was criticised for the prime minister’s preference for using it for operational rather than strategic decisions. The NSC stays, with a similar elite membership to before. There are also two new Cabinet committees to reflect changed political priorities: one on constitutional reform will deal with the fall out from the Scottish referendum, will a new Europe committee, chaired by the PM, will oversee the referendum on EU membership.
One of the consequences of coalition – and perhaps prime ministerial preference – was a renaissance of the coordinating role of the Economic and Domestic Secretariat (EDS) which, having been marginalised under Blair, was more active in solving problems for ministers. The prime minister also, in 2012, realised the mistake he had made in removing capacity to assure progress on priorities, and created the Implementation Unit.
In 2015 we see the two roles brought closer together – with the creation of 10 new Implementation Taskforces – chaired by ministers (two by the PM) designed to drive issues as diverse as implementing the manifesto pledge on childcare, to delivering the targets on immigration to Syrian returners and housing. These are, in effect, activist Cabinet committees – supported by both implementation unit and EDS, and reporting to Cabinet. These taskforces are no doubt there to reduce the “buggeration factor” Cameron complained of before the election.
Man in the middle
In the last Parliament a lot of attention focussed on one long-serving Cabinet Office minister – Francis Maude – who drove efficiency and reform from the centre. But the big story to emerge from the 2015 reshuffle is the irresistible rise of the other Cabinet Office long-service medal winner – Oliver Letwin, the minister for government policy.
He has now been elevated to the full Cabinet, retaining his coordination role, but with added authority and ubiquity. He is chairing the home affairs and constitutional reform committees and the Economic Affairs sub-committee. But he is also going to be a man whose diary is booked solid – on 22 of the total of 24 committees.
Letwin can now perform the role Lord Whitelaw played for Mrs Thatcher and Lords Wakeham and Heseltine played for John Major – as enforcer and institutional glue. But to do that he needs clout with colleagues and political nous – David Cameron will no doubt be hoping he has found that combination in Mr Letwin.