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11 Feb 2022

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Politics and Society

Sue Gray’s interim update on lockdown parties in Downing Street was heavily gutted, but it found one culprit she could identify for the chaos. The internal organisation of the Prime Minister’s office had failed to keep pace with its expansion and evolution. Her diagnosis was: ‘The leadership structures are fragmented and complicated and this has sometimes led to the blurring of lines of accountability. Too much responsibility and expectation is placed on the senior official whose principal function is the direct support of the Prime Minister.’ The Prime Minister told Parliament last Monday that he ‘got it’ and would sort it.

Roll on a week and the getting and sorting has begun. There has been an exodus of key personnel from No 10, including the departure of Boris Johnson’s long-term ally Munira Mirza and the resignations of three senior officials implicated in the Partygate scandal.

Those departures meant the Prime Minister had to move swiftly to fill the gaps, and convince sceptical Conservative MPs hovering over the send button on their no confidence email that changes were not only happening, but they would also answer their longstanding concerns about No 10’s serial bungling and political tin ear.

The most eye-catching move was the appointment of Steve Barclay as chief of staff. That’s a job that is ill defined and relatively new. The first chief of staff, in the West Wing loving Blair No 10, was Jonathan Powell. The post fell into disuse under Gordon Brown but was revived by David Cameron, who was served throughout his tenure by Ed Llewellyn. Theresa May started with two — Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill — then was forced to replace them with Gavin Barwell, an ousted MP. Dominic Cummings performed some of the functions for Boris Johnson, as did Edward Lister, but the title finally passed to a former treasury civil servant, Dan Rosenfield — the last attempt to find someone to get a grip on Johnson’s No 10.

Barclay’s appointment is a departure because he is the first ever MP to perform this role. And he is not just an MP, he is a serving cabinet minister. He could have been asked to step down as the Cabinet Office Minister to focus on his new role in No 10, but instead he seems to be planning to do both jobs (in addition to serving people in his constituency of North East Cambridgeshire). Those of his predecessors prepared to comment on the record have reached an instant cross-party consensus that this does not compute given the demanding nature of the chief of staff role.

No 10 seems to think that such ‘double-hatting’ will solve some of the accountability confusions that led to Partygate. But it looks much more likely to lead to parallel lines of accountability, and a lack of clarity about who is doing what for whom — and critically, who is in charge of what. In fact, once you examine it closely, the appointment raises far more questions about the running of Downing Street than it answers.

The first question is which elements of the Chief of Staff job does Barclay keep and which does he ditch to make time for his cabinet role? He has a policy agenda he oversees there, a team of junior ministers, and he chairs a lot of cabinet committees. As already pointed out, that is not compatible with being at the Prime Minister’s beck and call, managing the flow of people and paper into the PM’s office, and ensuring he makes the right decisions at the right time and is able to prepare for what comes next.

Then there is a second set of questions about how his non-ministerial role actually functions. Does Barclay see himself as accountable to parliament? And if so, for what? Will he answer questions about No 10 as well as the Cabinet Office? Will he answer questions about the internal operations of Downing Street that he is now overseeing?

Come to that, who does he manage? Cummings and Rosenfield saw themselves as managing not just the advisers in No 10 but also the whole special adviser network. It is not clear that Barclay’s cabinet colleagues will be up for him putting himself in the middle of their relationship with their own advisers.

And what of the civil servants? Where does this leave the Cabinet Secretary who works for the PM, the permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office who works for Barclay and (if anyone will take the job) the new permanent secretary at No 10? And will Barclay still have his own private office, serving him as a minister, while working as one of a team with the civil servants in Downing Street?

The Cabinet Office is notoriously bad at publishing organisation charts, but they need to get to work if they want to demonstrate that this is a long-term solution to an identified governance problem, not just this weekend’s short-term political palliative.

By Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe. This article was originally published in the New Statesman

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