22 May 2015

Second term prime ministers have a big advantage – they know what they need to make government work for them – and are not bound by reckless pledges made in opposition. So it is interesting to see the choices the prime minister is making.

In 2010 David Cameron deliberately underpowered and depoliticised the centre. The first was a result of a pledge to reduce the number of special advisers: the second was a reaction to the need to support the Coalition. Over time he reverted – and did some reinvention as we documented in our report Centre Forward.

There are now some elements of continuity. The Implementation Unit in the Cabinet Office stays – and Oliver Letwin, with full Cabinet status (it is not clear how much difference this makes in practice) is given a clear lead on overseeing implementation with a new junior minister to assist. Other bits of structure that David Cameron introduced – like the National Security Council – are likely to stay, though it will be interesting to see whether the next National Security Adviser is again from the FCO when Sir Kim Darroch moves on.

Within No 10 there is continuity as Chief of Staff – with Ed Llewellyn staying, but becoming the Prime Minister’s Sherpa on the European negotiations, meaning bigger spans for the deputies. And his civil service office head, Chris Martin, has also signed on for a further stint in No 10.

But the appointment that is catching the headlines is that of Camilla Cavendish to head the policy unit. That means David Cameron has decided to end his experiment of having a serving MP in charge (Jo Johnson has moved on to be a Minister of State at BIS) and revert to a more “normal” policy unit head.

Indeed Camilla Cavendish fits the policy unit head type quite well. As our table of past heads of the unit shows, the think tank world (she was at Policy Exchange) and journalism have both been both happy recruiting grounds for Policy Unit. She stands out as being only the second woman to head the unit – only John Major previously appointed a female head, Sarah Hogg, who ran his unit from 1990-1995.

Prime Minister Head Tenure Career Immediately previous job
Thatcher John Hoskyns 1979-82 Military, business Policy Adviser to Thatcher, Shadow cabinet (1975-9)
Thatcher Ferdinand Mount 1982-83 Novelist, political journalist, CPRS Journalist
Thatcher John Redwood 1983-85 Merchant banker, academic Director NM Rothschild
Thatcher Brian Griffiths 1985-90 Academic Dean, City University Business School
Major Sarah Hogg 1990-95 Economics journalist Economics Editor, The Independent
Major Norman Blackwell 1995-97 Management consultant, Policy Unit Partner, McKinsey
Blair David Miliband 1997-2001 Policy researcher Head of Policy, Labour party (1994-7)
Blair Andrew Adonis 2001-05 Academic, journalist Member Number 10 policy unit since 1997
Blair Matthew Taylor 2005 Academic, Labour party official Director, IPPR
Blair David Bennett 2005-07 Management consultant Director, McKinsey
Brown Dan Corry 2007-08 Think tank economist, special adviserChair of Council of Economic Advisers, HM Treasury (2006-7)
Brown Nick Pearce 2008-10 Think tank, special adviser Director IPPR, policy unit 2007
Cameron James O’Shaughnessy 2010-11 Think tanks, Conservative adviser Director of Conservative Research Department, 2007-2010
Cameron Paul Kirby 2011-13 Consultant, Cabinet Office, adviser to Conservative shadow chancellor Partner, KPMG
Cameron Jo Johnson MP 2013-15 Banker, journalist MP (2010-current)
Cameron Camilla Cavendish 2015- Think tank, journalist Sunday Times columnist

The key attributes for a head of the unit are the ability to know the prime minister’s mind, have his ear and to speak credibly on his behalf. But the head also needs to have enough confidence to challenge the prime minister and be able to integrate individual policies into a coherent story about the government. The head must be able to manage the unit effectively – and help set priorities across government. It is crucial that the unit can act as a team – as well as have members who are credible in their own right. That is why we have argued that the unit needs to stay small and build links not just into departments but into the Cabinet Office co-ordination and implementation machinery.

There was one other Cameroonian innovation – the Policy Board which gave backbenchers who served on it a route to input into policy. That is more necessary in the run-up to an election when the search for new ideas is the top priority. But with a small majority, keeping backbenchers on board is a political imperative – and the continuation of this sounding board may be a useful tool for No 10 to stay in touch with backbench sentiment (as well as a way of identifying future talent). It will be interesting to see if this stays or goes.