Published on 19 November 2020
Share Tweet  Share

Opportunity to do things differently at Number 10?

As Dominic Cummings leaves Number 10 Downing Street, Baroness Sally Morgan watches with interest as Boris Johnson creates his new team of civil servants and special advisors who are confident enough to challenge constructively, but know ultimately who is in charge.

When Dominic Cummings left Number 10 Downing Street through the front door, carrying a cardboard box, it was a deliberate piece of theatre.

I was not surprised by the high-profile departure; his time at Number 10 was always going to end in drama. It follows an established pattern of individual behaviour which has repeatedly played out, for example previously at the DFE, and ultimately ends in implosion.

Campaigning and governing are very different beasts. Undoubtedly Dominic Cummings, Lee Cain and the wider Vote Leave gang were successful at setting dividing lines, delivering blunt and simple messages and mobilising their core vote in both the Referendum and General Election campaigns. The style was combative, macho and divisive; are you with us or against us?

Good government takes clarity of leadership; in the end it starts and ends at the top. Nobody in a team can function if they don’t understand its purpose and strategic parameters. Effective government also needs the ability to take well-informed decisions based upon a range of evidence and views, compromise, and the formation, maintenance and strengthening of a whole network of relationships and alliances. It takes mutual respect in a myriad of ways, whether within Number 10, between the PM and Cabinet, between special advisers and civil servants, between the Executive and Parliament , government and party. There must be space to listen to practitioners and experts, opinion-formers, campaigners and people with individual stories that may speak to bigger issues. Dialogue with the public has to be a permanent part of the diary; never take the electorate for granted.

Number 10 functions well if it has a confident and capable team of civil servants and special advisors who are just that – a team – made up of individuals who bring different backgrounds and experiences, understand how their roles are complementary whilst bringing specific expertise or responsibility, are confident enough to challenge constructively, but know ultimately who is in charge. That team supports the PM in the management of short-term crises as well as the broader business of government. It is relentless. I can’t imagine how it could function without mutual trust and friendship.

That’s not to say that reform of the civil service/machinery of government isn’t necessary. Every government feels that the civil service is better at policy than implementation; every government tries to bring in wider talent, to encourage more of a revolving door, to reduce the number of generalists and try new initiatives. Every government feels frustration either at the pace of change or the patiently-raised eyebrows of some. But sensible, self-confident and capable ministers respect independent thought, experience and wise counsel. Sensible civil servants welcome new blood whether political or specialist.

The innovation of a Chief of Staff post in 1997 was controversial , but has continued. Jonathan Powell was the perfect choice – hugely supportive of the then political project but an ex-diplomat, unassuming but very bright, a collaborator. The relationship between the Chief of Staff and senior civil servant in Number 10 sets the tone and visibly demonstrates the partnership.

It will be fascinating to watch the creation of the new team in Boris Johnson’s Number 10. But ultimately the buck stops with the PM – the Downing Street team is his creation, the Cabinet is his choice, the policies and execution rest on his shoulders.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

Back to Top