Ministers faced difficulty in the early days of David Cameron’s government. As we noted in Centre Forward, his commitment to reducing the size of the centre added to the difficulties of adjusting to government. Ministers struggled to engage with Number 10 as fewer special advisers were initially appointed and the Policy Unit took time to take shape (and work out how to cope with coalition). David Willetts, himself a Thatcher Policy Unit veteran, found Downing Street ‘incredibly hard to work out how to deal with because in the early days [it] kept on reorganising’. He ended up ‘frustrated too early on with how to deal with Number 10… trying to find who was really advising the PM’.
This led to emerging political problems being overlooked and U-turns down the line. Caroline Spelman felt that she and her colleagues ‘were on our own’ during the controversy over breaking up the Forestry Commission. As Nicholas Timmins noted in Never Again?, a lack of central policy and delivery units meant civil servants struggled to raise political concerns about the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. This view was confirmed by Paul Burstow who noted it was only when public criticisms emerged that ‘the centre on both sides of the coalition really started to seriously engage with the Department of Health’.
As time went on, ministers found Number 10 easier to deal with. Jonathan Djanogly felt Downing Street was ‘much better, by the time I left my role, than when I started’.
‘Number 10’s on the phone’
Departmental cultures and competing agendas meant interventions from the centre were often unwelcome. Interviewees complained about Number 10’s sporadic, media-driven tendency to interfere. Lynne Featherstone recounted how departments ‘just got edicts sent down from them, yes or no’. She found the ‘the level of control horrific … on the grid and all those things’. Mark Prisk was frustrated by the centre ‘changing its mind, changing arrangements at very short notice’.
Comparing his previous time in government, Ken Clarke noted that ‘Number 10 did not expect to run everything in those places. There was no Number 10 department as there is now. There wasn’t the control freakery there is now [or] the constant campaigning’. Clarke saw benefits in resisting this, stating:
'…at first I found all kinds of Number 10 apparatchiks were turning up in the department, having meetings with my officials and discussing policy. So I got them all thrown out… They told me they were preparing a speech for the Prime Minister, that is why they had to do it. That was the only explanation I got. But they never came again, I don’t think, unless they were smuggled in without anybody telling me!'
Ministers, especially junior ones, often found Number 10 too inaccessible and quick to dismiss their expertise. Alan Duncan thought that the fact Prime Ministers do not meet full ministerial teams to discuss their progress makes Downing Street ‘very insular, less well informed and dependent only on its immediate officials’.
The Cabinet Office has multiple functions and different ways of operating. In our report, Centre Forward, we looked at the way it supported the prime minister and the government on policy. Ministers like Jo Swinson recognised the importance of its coordinating role. The National Security Council (NSC), which Liam Fox described as ‘One of the most interesting innovations … that was long overdue’, was seen by some as a good example. Oliver Letwin, then Minister for Government Policy, was singled out by Steve Webb and others as a vital contact at the heart of government.
But under the Coalition, the Cabinet Office took on another role – promoting reform to departments under the other long-serving Minister of State, Francis Maude. That role was much less appreciated. Willetts, who found the Cabinet Office the ‘worst department of government’, appreciated its coordinating role but was deeply frustrated by its reform agenda: '
There is a kind of unspoken agenda, "We’ve got to enhance the role of the Centre". But they haven’t really worked out how to do that. I would say… on the foreign affairs/defence side and the NSC, the structure seemed to work. But the rest of the Cabinet Office was terrible. I mean an IT system that didn’t work in BIS which we had in about year three or four, which had been imposed on us because of this Cabinet Office.... So we had an absurd small company that couldn’t deliver an IT system and then it didn’t work. And I stupidly said, "It shows how wrong Cabinet Office is". And the Cabinet Office is like, ‘"No, that’s your decision, you’re responsible, and you have to take the blame. This is a mishandled contract."'
Making it work
Despite this, many ministers were able to work well with the centre, particularly those whose agendas were shared with the Prime Minister. Interviewees whose brief covered trade, industrial strategy and international development all benefitted from Number 10’s backing.
Damian Green, speaking about the Number 10 Policy Unit he once worked for under John Major, said departments tended to either include it in policymaking, or keep it ‘barred … at the door’. Those that included the Policy Unit tended to get ‘an easier ride’ from the Prime Minister. Jonathan Djanogly advised ministers to ‘spend a bit of time with the Downing Street people… working on your policy areas’, wishing he had done so himself.
Personal connections also helped. Greg Barker benefitted from ‘a good relationship with David Cameron both personally but also professionally’, meaning ‘there were times when I was able to cash in some of that political capital with a direct appeal to the Prime Minister’.
An important piece of advice was to engage early and often. George Young advised, ‘if there is a problem, tell the Prime Minister. [Downing Street] don’t like being caught on the hop’. Paul Burstow similarly commented that some of the backlash over the Health and Social Care Act could have been avoided through an early, proactive communication.
As the recent fallout from the Budget shows, close working between ministers and the centre of government is important, both in maintaining Cabinet cohesion and ensuring that ministers can deliver on their portfolios. Our Ministers Reflect archive offers lessons for both the centre and individual departments.
Both can expect turbulence at the start, but upheaval at the centre only adds to this. As our report Centre Forward highlighted, the centre should build up a set of core capacities for driving the Prime Minister’s agenda, which would reduce the need for major reorganisations. There also need to be better mechanisms for central coordination – the National Security Council could be a useful model. Finally, ministers hoping to drive an agenda through should engage early and often: this is a difficult, but undoubtedly worthwhile, exercise.
Explore our full Ministers Reflect archive.