‘Downing Street, We Have a Problem’: Redesigning the Centre of UK Government

By Benjamin Gregg

The seas of change will soon wash through Whitehall, as the government has reportedly promised to “transform Britain in 18 months”. Plans involve moving departments to northern England, slimming local government, and ambitious reforms to the civil service. Yet, the change that has elicited most recent discussion is the reshaping of the Prime Minister’s Office that Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s Chief Adviser, wants to force the reforms through.

Top of the agenda is a new ‘Mission Control’, part of Cummings’ desire for a data-driven, “more focused and more elite centre [of government]”. Key advisers from the Prime Minister’s Office have moved into a new space in the Cabinet Office. The location matches Cummings’ admiration for NASA-style command centres, with walls covered in screens showing real-time data. It builds on the launch of a new press centre to oversee daily briefings and the appointment of Simon Case as Cabinet Secretary.

Some dismissed the moves as a power grab, but, in principle, a shakeup of Downing Street is neither new nor controversial. The Institute for Government claimed the government is “justified[i] in seeking reform. They even preceded the government in calling for a “stronger core[ii] with their 2014 report: Centre Forward. Political scientists Anthony King and Ivor Crewe dedicated a whole chapter to strengthening the Prime Minister’s Office – pithily titled ‘The Centre Cannot Hold[iii] – in their well-received book: The Blunders of our Governments.

The reason for the unanimity is simple: the UK Prime Minister is surprisingly weak. By convention, the Prime Minister is only first among equals within the cabinet, but political resistance to centralisation has rendered that unrealistic. Cabinet ministers have departments packed with civil servants and numerous special advisers; the Prime Minister has a section of the Cabinet Office, presently manned by only 50 people[iv]. The Prime Minister’s Office is then siloed between civil service areas, like the Private Office, and a malleable set of special adviser ‘units’. The result, in the words of one former Number 10 insider, is a “court[v] rather than an effective hub of government.

Compare this with other parliamentary systems. In Canada, the Prime Minister has over 500 staff[vi] in the Privy Council Office directly giving them policy advice and coordination, plus around 95 political appointees in the Prime Minister’s Office focused on politics and communications. The Australian Prime Minister controls the Department for Prime Minister and Cabinet, managing cross-government co-ordination and implementation, alongside a political Prime Minister’s Office. By contrast, the UK centre is understaffed, unstructured, and lacks basic systems to coordinate action or see policy to implementation.

With a weak centre, ministers run their departments like “medieval barons[vii], according to constitutional expert Phillip Norton. A Cameron-era adviser recalled needing “Sherlock Holmes-like skills[viii] to get information. Coordinated action is near impossible. Ministers are almost unaccountable unless a blunder becomes public. And bad policy multiplies[ix] without a powerful, progress-chasing centre, making policy implementation the “Achilles’ heel of the UK system[x].

The fumbled response to Covid-19, reportedly the impetus behind Johnson’s latest push, exemplifies the weakness of the UK centre. Incompetence plays an outsized role, but bad systems magnified and multiplied the tragedy of errors. Without central accountability, ill-considered decisions slip by unquestioned: decisions like moving thousands of elderly patients from hospitals to care homes without testing; or launching a track and trace system that neither tracked nor traced; or developing a contract tracing app for two months after being told it would not work.

The principle is widely accepted and the motivation evident, but the idea is not new. Tony Blair was accused of “a power grab[xi] for empowering the centre. He expanded his staff to nearly 226, introduced the Chief of Staff, and added the Strategy and Delivery Units, for long-term planning and to solve the “Achilles’ heel” of implementation. Despite both promising to weaken Downing Street[xii], Gordon Brown and David Cameron imitated Blair. Brown built an open-plan “hub” in 12 Downing Street, and Cameron strengthened the National Security Council[xiii]. Yet none of these attempts achieved a centre comparable to other countries. Political Scientist R.A.W Rhodes dismissed them as merely reflecting “the centre’s sense of its own weakness[xiv].

Now it is Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings’ turn. And they are going in the opposite direction. Cummings dismissed the option of increasing the centre. Instead, he is reshaping it. He wants his Mission Control to be a new nerve centre of government. The aim is to boost strategy, coordination, and implementation by putting the heads of the Policy and Implementation Units in one room, along with Cummings’ weirdos and misfits.

But the changes are insufficient. Shuffling around the location of advisers risks confusing responsibilities rather than clarifying them[xv]. Neither Boris Johnson, Edward Lister, his Chief Strategic Adviser, nor the Cabinet Secretary are in Mission Control. By adding another layer to an already confused Office, Cummings’ is increasing the court-like environment. And it will still be outgunned by Ministers’ Departments. The Department for Digital, Media Culture and Sport alone has 900 staff, compared to Johnson’s 50. It is a cosmetic change, not a serious solution.

The government’s diagnosis is right: a “more focused and more elite” centre is needed. But achieving it is harder than moving offices and cosplaying NASA. It requires rationalising responsibilities between civil servants and special advisers, creating a real Prime Minister’s Department, and properly staffing the Prime Minister’s Office. Johnson would be better off looking to Canada than Cummings.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

[i] Institute for Government. 2020. Reform of the Centre of Government. London: Institute for Government. p. 9.

[ii] Institute for Government. 2014. Centre Forward. London: Institute for Government. p. 89

[iii] Crewe, Ivor, and Anthony King. 2014. The Blunders of Our Governments. London: Oneworld Publications.

[iv] Reform of the Centre of Government. 2020. p. 7.

[v] Centre Forward. 2014. p. 89.

[vi] Centre Forward. 2014. p. 33.

[vii] Centre Forward. 2014. p. 17.

[viii] Centre Forward. 2014. p. 17.

[ix] See The Blunders of Our Government for full argument

[x] Centre Forward. 2014. p. 4.

[xi] Centre Forward. 2014. p. 87.

[xii] Centre Forward. 2014. p. 13.

[xiii] Centre Forward. 2014. p. 3.

[xiv] Rhodes, R.A.W. 2007. Understanding Governance: Ten Years On. Organisation Studies.

[xv] Reform of the Centre of Government. 2020. p. 8.

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