25 April 2013

At least Jo Johnson, newly appointed ministerial head of the No.10 Policy Unit, won’t be moving to California or leaving to set up his own high tech startup before the election. But this move signals a change at No.10 and for coalition dynamics – and potential evolution in the role of ministers and advisers.

David Miliband headed the No.10 Policy Unit before he went off to be MP for South Shields and then start his rise to Foreign Secretary. Andrew Adonis headed the No.10 Policy Unit before moving as a Lords Minister to the Department of Education and becoming the most enthusiastic ever Transport Secretary. In an earlier era, John Redwood headed Mrs Thatcher’s Policy Unit before entering the Commons.

So the idea of someone with political instincts and ambitions in charge of policy at No.10 is not new, and as we argued the Cameron policy unit was an outlier in relying on civil servants to serve the coalition rather than be a predominantly political operation. Nick Clegg has already strengthened his own office with a mix of special advisers and civil servants.

Off the benches

What is odd is for that role to go to a serving MP. But this could be a smart move, given the large amount of untapped talent on the backbenches. As Fraser Nelson argued at our recent event on No.10, many of the people who under normal circumstances would have become advisers, looking for seats at by-elections or at the 2015 election, took the opportunity of the unprecedented number of expense-induced exits in 2010 to get themselves elected – and have since found themselves sitting frustrated on the backbenches – with promotion opportunities reduced by coalition. So using that talent pool in roles which otherwise would have been recruited externally seems to make a lot of sense. There could well be a case for other secretaries of state, needing political advice, using the talents of backbenchers rather than the next person off the central office cab rank. Over time, maybe more backbench MPs should displace conventional special advisers – and this could point to an evolution of the junior ministerial role. The big difference of course is that the Prime Minister appoints junior ministers – and ministers appoint their own advisers with No.10’s consent.

The small print

There are other more prosaic issues. Jo Johnson has been made an unpaid Parliamentary secretary in the Cabinet office. But is he accountable to Parliament? For what? Will he answer questions? Normally junior ministers will take on some of the questions to the secretary of state. And with ministerial status, with whom will he interact in Nick Clegg’s office? Will he still be able to operate, as other Policy Unit heads have, at both ministerial and official level across Whitehall to take out the Prime Minister’s message and also to act as intelligence gatherer and early warning system? Finally, will his ministerial appointment come with the trappings of ministerial office – does the Cabinet Office “berth” come complete with staff to serve him, as opposed to the unit?

The big picture

Up until now, ‘watch this space’ at Number 10 meant looking at the gaps as advisers left. With the appointment of John Hayes and now Jo Johnson ‘watch this space’ takes on a different meaning: To see what the new No.10 means for the Conservative side of the government, (re)gaining a sense of political direction and connection to the wider Parliamentary party. And to see what extent that sharper differentiation in the run-up to the election comes at the price of undermining the already wobbling workings of the Coalition.

Making the Coalition function day-to-day was one thing that the panellists at our session on Downing Street thought the (Paul) Kirby Policy Unit did well but in the second half of the coalition’s term, this might just be the bigger challenge.

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