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The Engine Room: How to organise 10 Downing Street

The Institute for Government hosted a discussion on how Downing Street has operated under the past four Prime Ministers and how it should evolve.

The Institute for Government hosted a discussion on how Downing Street has operated under the past four Prime Ministers and how it should evolve to meet today’s demands.


Sir Alex Allan, Former Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister (John Major) 
Baroness Sally Morgan, Former Director of Government Relations at Number 10 (under Tony Blair)
Patrick Diamond – Former Head of Policy Planning and Senior Policy Adviser at Number 10 (under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown).
Fraser Nelson, Editor, The Spectator


Jill Rutter, Programme Director, Better Policy Making, Institute for Government

The Engine Room: How to organise 10 Downing Street

On 9 April 2013, the Institute for Government hosted a seminar on how Downing Street has operated under the past four Prime Ministers and how it should evolve to meet today’s demands.

The panel included:

  • Sir Alex Allan, Principal Private Secretary to John Major
  • Baroness Sally Morgan, Director of Government Relations at Number 10 under Tony Blair
  • Patrick Diamond, Senior Policy Adviser at Number 10 under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
  • Fraser Nelson, Editor, The Spectator.
  • Jill Rutter (chair), Institute for Government.

In advance of the event, we asked our panellists to comment briefly on one aspect of how Downing Street works. We published these insights alongside Institute for Government commentary in a short briefing paper, also titled The Engine Room.

At the event itself, the panellists gave four distinctive accounts of how Downing Street has worked in different periods and what are the most important factors for getting Number 10 working well.

First to speak was Sir Alex Allan, who noted the significant growth in the size of the Number 10 operation in recent decades. Under Margaret Thatcher, the total size of Number 10 was under 70; under John Major it was between 90 and 100; under Tony Blair it then rose to a peak of around 225; and it now sits at around 200. Nonetheless, Sir Alex reflected, few questioned the ability of Thatcher and her team to run the government effectively. Later in Q&A, an official from the Harold Wilson era noted that even Thatcher’s Number 10 represented a growth on previous periods.

Looking back to the transition from Major to Blair, which he observed first hand, Sir Alex noted that the big change in how Number 10 worked related less to the different styles of the two men and more to the very different political context: from a government with no working majority to one elected with a huge landslide.

Sir Alex also argued that the split between civil servants and political appointees in Number 10 was not a crucial issue: for many policy and communications jobs in Downing Street, you will want the best person irrespective of their status. The Policy Unit under Major had a mix of officials and special advisers, both carrying out similar roles. There are, of course, some roles in Number 10 that do require more political figures to fill them.

Speaking from the chair, Jill Rutter commented that as a civil servant official in Major’s Policy Unit, what she found the most difficult was the pre-election period when the Policy Unit had to start thinking about a policy agenda for a potential future Conservative government. This was not a job for civil servants she argued. In the latter stages of a government, it might therefore be expected that political appointees take on a more central role – which is what appears to be happening at present under David Cameron.

Reflecting on the Tony Blair administration, Baroness Sally Morgan spoke next, making the case that the most important factor in how (and how well) Number 10 operates is having a strong Prime Minister who sets a clear strategic mission for the rest of the government to follow. When this was in place, she – as Director of Government Relations – could be clear about the direction of travel for the government, and could judge policies being proposed from elsewhere in government against this framework. Tony Blair used to send key staff a weekly email setting out his view of the priorities for the week, which helped provide a clear sense of mission.

Baroness Morgan also argued that how the Prime Minister uses his time is crucial for keeping the focus on the government’s priorities. If the government was seeking to emphasise health reform – for instance – then the Prime Minister shouldn’t be spending all his time on international travel. In fact, she recalled, Blair’s team had jokingly discussed whether they could confiscate the PM’s passport to avoid this problem!

Also crucial is that all members of the Number 10 team have clear and complementary roles – notably including the divide between civil servants and special advisers. When working on the issue of ID cards, for instance, she and Jeremy Heywood (as the senior official in Number 10) had worked closely together with Baroness Morgan calling cabinet ministers and Heywood calling permanent secretaries to build the necessary cross-government support.

Baroness Morgan also recalled that Policy Unit had functioned well with a mix of civil servants and special advisers, though noted that in the top-priority public service departments the lead was usually a political appointee, who would have to work effectively as a single team alongside advisers and officials from the department in question.

Next to speak was Patrick Diamond, whose time in Number 10 spanned the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown eras. He argued that there were three main factors that had a bearing on the organisation of Number 10.

First, the political style of the Prime Minister was significant. Some PMs come into office with a clear view of what they want to do with their Number 10. So, for instance, Brown had a clear desire to move away from so-called ‘sofa government’ and wanted to rely more on Cabinet government. PMs change over time as well. There was some truth in the sofa government caricature, but during his time in power Blair actually changed quite a lot, learning over time the value of getting ministers and departments on board rather than trying to manage too much from the centre.

Second, the context within which the government is operating is very important. It’s clear that the economic and banking crisis were what gave Brown’s Number 10 a belated sense of purpose, and the organisation of the centre changed to reflect that – for instance with the creation of the National Economic Council to drive a proactive economic strategy. Also important is how much political capital the PM has. When Blair was encountering resistance from Labour party colleagues to some of his agenda, he relied more on a strong political operation in Downing Street to help him push his agenda forward.

Third, and most important, is the strategic mission of the government. If you can articulate a clear mission then the organisation of Number 10 should follow this. Each recent PM has had some central objectives and projects that have shaped the structure of Downing Street, from Major’s Citizens’ Charter through Blair’s focus on public service reform, to Brown’s need to respond to the economic crisis. These different missions had a bearing on how Downing Street was set up.

Finally, Fraser Nelson discussed the evolution of David Cameron’s Downing Street. He described three phases of this process. The Conservatives first came in with a view that you could recreate a slimline operation in the mould of Thatcher’s Number 10. The problem with this approach was that it largely seemed to be a policy designed to make a political point that they would be different from Labour.

In practice this first phase lasted until the “27th U-turn” – the NHS debacle that no one in Downing Street seemed to have seen coming. Phase 2 then commenced with a reconstructed Policy Unit staffed by civil servants and answering to both coalition parties, a change that also saw Jeremy Heywood take on a stronger role.

An important fact, Nelson argued, was that Number 10 in practice never became the engine room of this government as it had been under previous PMs. One crucial reason is that David Cameron cannot simply take decisions about the strategic mission of the government – these are taken in negotiation between the two coalition parties, and particularly within “the Quad”, serviced by the Economic and Domestic Secretariat in the Cabinet Office.

The Policy Unit were sometimes blamed for the PM’s lack of grip by others across government but in Nelson’s view this was unfair and the real problem was the lack of clear strategic direction they were provided with. The PM himself reportedly admitted having no interest in machinery questions, leaving this to others to fix for him. But where – Nelson asked – was Cameron’s ‘Leo McGarry’ figure to take on this role? The current Chief of Staff in Downing Street appeared to play a different, though important, role.

Recognition of some of these weaknesses has led to phase 3 of Downing Street’s evolution, with the recreation of a politically-led Policy Unit working specifically on a Conservative agenda. But it’s too late for policy development that will make an impact within this government. Instead, the parties are into electoral mode. Nelson concluded with the line that while the government was now trying to fix the engine, by the time it had a functional machine, the PM might well be getting out of the car.


Number 10
Institute for Government

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