Working to make government more effective


No10 needs a chief of staff with the clear authority of the prime minister

The prime minister should be looking for a top adviser who can exercise authority on his behalf with subtlety and skill

The prime minister should be looking for a top adviser who can exercise authority on his behalf with subtlety and skill, says Alex Thomas

It has been a turbulent week in No10. Dominic Cummings and his ally Lee Cain have left the building after the latter was passed over for promotion to the prime minister’s chief of staff. Boris Johnson has now asked his longstanding fixer Edward Lister to fill the top job on an interim basis while he looks for a permanent head for his political team.

Originally a military term, when deployed in government or business the title of chief of staff carries with it more than a hint of hubris. Gavin Barwell, when speaking to the Institute for Government recalled that “the important word is staff, not chief”. With Cain and Cummings having cleared their desks, the prime minister must work out what he wants his chief of staff – a role he has until now left unfilled – to achieve.

Chiefs of staff can play a vital role in government

Johnson’s decision not to appoint a top political adviser from the start of his term is unusual in recent history but not unprecedented. Gordon Brown experimented with different models before relying on a powerful civil service permanent secretary in Jeremy Heywood.

But otherwise chiefs of staff have, since 1997 when Tony Blair brought Jonathan Powell into No10 to be the first such appointee, been an established part of the prime minister’s team. David Cameron had Ed Llewellyn, and Nick Clegg as deputy prime minister appointed Jonny Oates. Theresa May had two. “The chiefs” Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy ran her political operation until ousted after the 2017 election result and replaced by Barwell.

Johnson has clearly decided that it is time he followed suit.

Chiefs need a rare mix of skills as well as unambiguous prime ministerial authority

The model has tended to work with the chief of staff heading the political side of a prime minister’s team, managing the political appointees in No10 and overseeing the wider network of special advisers across government. They are a source of political advice on policy issues and appointments, and act as a counter-point to the civil service machine headed by the cabinet secretary and No10’s principal private secretary.

The key attribute is that the post-holder is the single figure who channels the political authority of the prime minister. Overlapping remits, ambiguity over who takes decisions or an unclear chain of command is disastrous for the coherence of No10, and by extension the whole government.

It is not an easy job. As well as exercising authority over the political team, a successful chief of staff needs to be a negotiator and sometimes a conciliator. They must bridge gaps between cabinet ministers and the prime minister, and between the government, its backbench MPs and its party. Others can do the legwork, but most of the toughest conversations – especially those when the prime minister wants to keep their powder dry – fall to the chief of staff.

They are also the most senior personal adviser to the prime minister, so need exceptional political instincts. And as one of the PM’s gatekeepers they need to know the prime minister’s mind. A chief of staff will be little use to their boss if they cannot speak to, anticipate and interpret what the PM wants to happen, and keep that separate from their own agenda.

A No10 chief of staff is also a leader, even more so now that Downing Street has further centralised the management of special advisers across Whitehall. They need to set a direction for their team, inspire confidence in their judgement and manage individuals’ performance including hiring and firing. And they must work alongside and get the best out of the civil service. The No10 team is tight knit and, whatever the constitutional proprieties, loyalties end up merging over time. A good chief of staff recognises the role of civil servants and gets the most out of their policy, management and implementation skills.

The job is to get the PM’s agenda done, not pursue your own

Chiefs of staff have come from a variety of backgrounds. Powell and Llewellyn were diplomats, Barwell was an MP and Timothy worked for the Conservative Party. Hill, like Cain, worked in the media, though occupants of the job have worked best outside the spotlight. Cain’s loose briefing and communications, as well as his abrasive factionalism, may be why, in the end, Boris Johnson shied away from appointing him to the post.

Successful chiefs of staff speak for, and have no agenda separate from, the prime minister. So far in this government Cummings has been the voice of Johnson, though it has not always been clear that their policy plans align. A new appointee should not let such gaps between their personal views and the PM’s position emerge.

Whoever the prime minister appoints as his chief of staff, in taking the job they need to know that they are at the top of the tree. The role is too important to be confused by ambiguity of responsibilities or uncertain hierarchies. If he sorts out the mess and picks his new chief wisely, Boris Johnson will find that these bruising changes are the route to a calmer, more disciplined central political team.

Civil servants
Johnson government
Number 10
Institute for Government

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