Policy Papers


The ‘Department of the Prime Minister’ - should it continue?

Andrew Blick , George Jones |

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Executive Summary

  • Tony Blair has constructed a semi-official 'Department of the Prime Minister'. Historical experience suggests this body should be disbanded.
  • Premiers have always relied on aides and each incumbent has made a personal mark on his or her team. One way in which a successor to Blair can establish a distinct identity is through using assistants in a different way.
  • The process of attaching functions to the team of the Prime Minister and subsequently separating them from it is well established. The next British premier can easily discard some of the aides and units that have served Blair.
  • Heavy reliance on either partisan temporary aides or impartial permanent officials is likely to prove ineffective. The premier's team should be a mixture of outside appointments and career civil servants.
  • Prime Ministers, using their aides, have much discretion to engage in activities of their choice, but there are dangers of an excessive workload. The next premier should avoid interfering in the business of local government and public services but focus on economic policy, counter-terrorism and international environmental issues.
  • Premiers can wield extensive power through their aides, when political circumstances permit. However, staff are better used to facilitate relationships with the power-bases on which Prime Ministers depend, not to bypass or supplant them: and this approach should apply above all to working with the Cabinet.
  • Controversy about prime-ministerial staff is inevitable. Prime Ministers must be prepared to defend the way their teams operate.

Introduction

Tony Blair's use of aides has been a defining feature of his term of office. Their number, terms of employment and the range and scope of their activities have been exceptional when compared with the teams supporting previous Prime Ministers.

The number working in Blair's office at No.10 and its annexe at 70 Whitehall rose from just over one hundred when he took over in 1997 to nearly two hundred (these figures cover all personnel from typists to senior advisers). By altering the terms of reference for the Cabinet Office - a body traditionally charged with serving ministers collectively - he became directly responsible for a large proportion of its staff. The last time official figures were issued (for 2004-5) the total serving him in the Cabinet Office (which includes those employed at No.10) exceeded seven hundred. While direct comparisons are difficult, the size of the team formally working for Blair has come to exceed that of any earlier Prime Minister by more than five hundred (over 300 per cent).

A key feature of Blair's staff has been his inclusion within it of more partisan assistants than any premier since the emergence of the permanent Civil Service. The number of special advisers - temporary officials, permitted to display and act upon party-political affiliation and commitment to particular ministers - rose from fewer than ten under John Major to nearly thirty attached to Blair. Many of these individuals drawn from beyond Whitehall were placed in senior posts. Two of them - Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell - were vested with legal authority to manage career civil servants, both within No. 10 and across the government.

Through his enlarged team Blair has been able to reshape the machinery of government, through such bodies as the Office of Public Service Reform, established in 2001; the formation of policy, including through his policy advisers and the Strategy Unit, set up in 2002; and official presentation, through the Strategic Communications Unit, created in 1998. Home and foreign affairs have increasingly come under prime-ministerial influence. The Delivery Unit - introduced in 2001 - concerned itself with domestic public-service performance. In the same year Blair formed the Foreign Policy Directorate to enhance his role in international policy. The two senior staff within the Directorate were not only his aides but heads respectively of the European, and Defence and Overseas Cabinet Secretariats. The timeframe in which his team has operated has ranged from the immediate - rebutting unfavourable news stories with the Research and Information Office (introduced in 1999) - to decades in the future - as with the reviews carried out by the Strategy Unit. Blair's staff has ranged widely, engaging not only in the business of Whitehall departments, but also - through its part in the regime of public-service targets and modernization measures - in local government and even the criminal-justice system.

The group of aides described above amount to a semi-official 'Department of the Prime Minister'. For decades there has been debate over whether the creation of such an entity was appropriate, and whether it was already emerging gradually and informally. From 1997 Blair set one up. Whoever follows him at No.10 will have to decide what to do with it. Historical evidence suggests it should be disbanded.

A collective office

The histories of the position of Prime Minister and of the aides supporting it are inseparable. Though a single person formally occupies it, the premiership is exercised collectively. Robert Walpole - commonly regarded as the first Prime Minister from 1730 to 1742 - established and performed the role with the assistance of individuals such as John Scrope, his Secretary to the Treasury, and Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London, his ecclesiastical adviser. Similarly all his successors have relied on the assistance of others to maintain and exploit their positions. They have all done so in their own way. Their staffs - though sharing common features with those of other premiers - have borne their personal marks, reflecting their characteristics and styles of work, and the circumstances of the time.

Often there has been a sharp change of approach from one Prime Minister to the next. From the 1860s to the 1880s Benjamin Disraeli and W. E. Gladstone alternated in power. The former had little interest in detail and used his aides to enable him to do less; while the latter was obsessed with minutiae and looked to assistants to be able to achieve more. Disraeli devolved much responsibility upon a single favoured secretary, Montagu Corry; while Gladstone did not vest such great authority in one individual. Sometimes there has been a conscious attempt to operate differently. When David Lloyd George arrived at No.10 in 1916, reacting against the perceived weak, directionless leadership of Herbert Asquith, he established a team of policy advisers known popularly as the 'Garden Suburb' and formed a secretariat for recording and transmitting the conclusions of the War Cabinet (though the latter body was not attached directly to him). In 1922 after the fall of Lloyd George - whose methods like Asquith's had fallen into disrepute - Andrew Bonar Law pursued a different style with the use of fewer aides.

Blair's enhancements to the prime-ministerial staff can be seen as another such change of direction. Major's premiership, like Asquith's, was criticised increasingly for feebleness and incompetence. From 1997 Blair sought to avoid such flaws and perceptions. The leader who follows Blair will need to mark himself as different from Blair, both to distinguish himself from a premier who has held office and dominated domestic politics for so long, and to renew the government. Taking into account the long-established tendency for changes in the way aides are used, the next Prime Minister should consciously and openly alter the arrangements established under Blair.

The diffusion of functions

Since the 1960s there has been a notable expansion in prime-ministerial staff, through the establishment of bodies such as the Prime Minister's Policy Unit in 1974. But there is also a well-established pattern of responsibilities moving away from the Prime Minister, often along with the aides who perform them. Early premiers, as First Lords of the Treasury and even Chancellors of the Exchequer, were in direct control of the Treasury and the staff working in it, who comprised in effect a 'Department of the Prime Minister'. This role was an important source of power contributing to the emergence of the premiership. But from the mid-nineteenth century Prime Ministers generally distanced themselves from the Treasury. Before 1916 secretaries working within No.10 helped manage Cabinet business. But the formation of what became the Cabinet Office in that year meant that some of the responsibility for the collective core of government was transferred outside the immediate remit of the premier. After the Second World War the Statistical Section set up by Churchill moved away from the Prime Minister, eventually developing into today's Office for National Statistics.

Taking into account this historical process of separation and attachment, or fission and fusion, a successor to Blair should move a number of the bodies he has created out of the prime-ministerial ambit or abolish them. Indeed during the latest phase of his premiership Blair himself has tentatively begun moving in this direction. The Office of Public Service Reform is now defunct; some of No.10's influence over communications has been ceded to a newly established Permanent Secretary for Government Communications based in the Cabinet Office; and the objectives of the Cabinet Office have been rewritten once more to emphasise its purpose of supporting Cabinet as well as the Prime Minister. The next premier should accelerate the process of fission, which Blair himself has begun.

Outsiders and regulars

A group which has accounted for much of the expansion of senior staff at No.10 since the 1960s has been temporary, party-political appointments, including those employed in the Political Office (such as Marcia Williams, Harold Wilson's Political Secretary) and special advisers (such as Sarah Hogg, the journalist who was recruited as head of John Major's Policy Unit). The use of staff who were not permanent civil servants has often been associated with controversy over whether they undermined the principle of an impartial administrative machine; and there has been tension between incomers and established officials. But the period in which career staff virtually monopolised support for the Prime Minister was relatively brief, less than four decades from the late 1920s, and interrupted by the Second World War. In the eighteenth century there was no distinction between administrative personnel and party politicians. Assistants who subsumed both these categorisations served premiers. They were known as 'men of business' and often held official posts while sitting in Parliament. But the pressure of these dual roles became too great, and Parliament objected to Prime Ministers possessing such great power of patronage over MPs. The 'man of business' evolved into two distinct species - the career civil servant and the junior minister. But 'men of business' were useful to Prime Ministers since they helped them perform the essential task of connecting party politics with administration. The use of special advisers since 1964 represented a partial restoration of older methods.

A new Prime Minister should continue to use a mixed team of regular officials and party-political appointments. Historical evidence suggests that an attempt to draw exclusively on one or the other type of aide will prove ineffective. It will not be necessary to rely so heavily on special advisers as Blair has done, since his replacement will presumably have had ample experience of dealing with career civil servants (while Blair had none in 1997). The incoming premier should attempt to identify permanent staff who can perform the two senior roles Blair allotted to special advisers. The Order in Council of 1997 granting such advisers management powers will no longer be required.

Flexibility and limitations

The position of British Prime Minister emerged informally over a long period of time. Though Walpole might be regarded as its first occupant, in his time the title was a term of abuse rather than an official post. Throughout the eighteenth century neither the existence nor the desirability of a premiership were fully accepted. Only in 1905 was the Prime Minister given formal recognition. The job has never been clearly defined in statute. As a consequence of this uncertainty, those who hold it - though lacking legal powers - are hampered by few formal restrictions on what they can do. Prime Ministers have engaged in a wide variety of initiatives and activities, often with the help of aides.

Using assistants such as Nicholas Paxton (the Treasury Solicitor) Walpole sought to ensure favourable media coverage. In the 1760s Lord Rockingham used his secretary - the young Edmund Burke - to liaise with the rising commercial classes. William Pitt the Younger drew on a variety of policy advisers, some from beyond the usual government circles, such as the radical philosopher and demographer Richard Price. In the 1830s and 1840s Francis Bonham helped Robert Peel manage his relationship with the Conservative Party. Benjamin Disraeli took a lead in foreign policy with the assistance of his secretary Montagu Corry. Both David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill created prime-ministerial staffs for overseeing their war efforts. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher pursued her goal of a more slimmed-down state through the Efficiency Unit, under the direction of Derek Rayner of Marks and Spencer.

In all the above instances Prime Ministers were taking advantage of the discretion inherent in the office they held to achieve their objectives. But there have always been practical limits upon the activities into which they could enter. The first was that more work entailed greater strain upon the Prime Minister and his staff - even if accompanied by growth in personnel - since they had to be supervised if premiers were to retain personal control, and larger teams were more prone to internal disputes requiring resolution. Pitt the Younger's early death seems to have been brought on in part by overwork. Aides have met with similar fates. In 1782 Edward Chamberlain, shortly after taking on the post of Secretary to the Treasury - then the most important of prime-ministerial assistants - committed suicide, possibly because he was overawed by the task he had assumed. William Armstrong, Head of the Home Civil Service and dubbed the 'Deputy Prime Minister' of his day, succumbed to paranoid delusions prompted by the political, industrial and economic chaos of Edward Heath's 1970-4 premiership. It is possible for staff to reduce the workload but not if those above them become drawn into their activities. Though Gladstone specifically charged one of his secretaries with overseeing church appointments, the premier could not resist involving himself in them, sometimes to the exclusion of all else.

In entrusting staff with a wide variety of tasks Tony Blair fully exploited the lack of formal restraints upon the premiership. This approach enabled him in some respects to attain his objectives. Blair and his team exerted considerable influence over foreign policy and government communications. But there were drawbacks. Comments he made during his evidence-session with the House of Commons Liaison Committee in 2002 suggested the Prime Minister was engrossed in the fine detail of public-service reform. The many tasks Blair took on himself and his aides were a source of strain for all involved. There were disputes within his team, involving the Office of Public Service Reform. At the same time Blair's staff were restricted in their entry onto territory ceded to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, including economic and welfare policy.

The next premier should reflect on earlier victims of No.10 overstretch and reduce the range of duties performed by prime-ministerial staff. Tasks carried out by the Delivery Unit - which entail engaging in the work of local government and the criminal-justice system - should be discarded. A substantial downscaling in duties and numbers would ensure that flexibility, a major source of prime-ministerial strength, is restored and facilitate a focus on a small number of core issues. Short-to-medium-term media work should be kept on. Retaining a prominent role in foreign affairs is both feasible and advisable. A small number of assistants - with full backing from the premier - should be charged with engaging in work which has since 1997 been dominated by the Treasury. And following the example of leaders such as Lloyd George, who established teams to oversee the pressing concerns of the time, the new Prime Minister should consider creating units charged with overseeing international and domestic counter-terrorist policy, and combating global warming.

One objective of the next premier will probably be devolution of political power, a purpose widely supported at present. The temptation to establish a body at No.10 or in the Cabinet Office tasked with achieving this goal should be resisted. Previous Prime Ministers committed to reducing the size or expenditure of the state, or dispersing authority from Whitehall - from Gladstone to Edward Heath to Thatcher to Blair - have often enhanced the size or authority of staff close to them. But it is a contradiction in terms to attempt to force such a process through an expansion at the centre, and a new tier of bureaucracy is unlikely to will its own abolition.

Aides and prime-ministerial power

In the 1960s John Mackintosh and Richard Crossman argued that the power of No.10 had grown to the point that prime-ministerial rather than Cabinet government had developed. Those who followed in this tradition have often portrayed the expanding number of aides at Downing Street since the 1960s as evidence of a further extension of control from the centre. Personal aides can help provide leaders with a degree of autonomy and help them capitalise on political strength. But there is a common fault in arguments advanced by thinkers in this school: they fail to take proper account of the extent to which premiers - who lack statutory authority - must work through ministers whose tacit or active support is needed. Prime Ministers are similarly dependent upon further institutions such as the Civil Service, Parliament, and their party. The ability of premiers to impose themselves on others varies partly according to circumstances. It can wax and wane from one incumbent to the next, and during particular premierships. Lloyd George's dynamic approach was tolerated partly because it offered a possible resolution to the precarious military position prevailing when he took office. But by 1922 the war had been won and the premier's electoral popularity was in decline. Conservatives in his government and Parliament turned on Lloyd George and ousted him.

Premiers who enjoy favourable circumstances can capitalise upon them with the assistance of aides. But they should not view power merely in the narrow, short-term sense of being able to bypass others. They need to have a longer and broader perspective that can avoid the antipathy that a non-consensual leadership style may create over time as well as the poor decisions it may produce. Margaret Thatcher used assistants to pursue favoured policy options. She was able to do so partly because of her strong political position, following military victory in the Falklands and winning successive elections. But her style engendered resentment amongst ministers and MPs who felt marginalised. In 1989 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, resigned, protesting at the behaviour of Thatcher's economic adviser Alan Walters, who also stood down. As well as prompting this damaging incident, her methods contributed to a policy fiasco that further eroded her authority. The difficulties over the Community Charge or 'Poll Tax' - which some in the government had foreseen - were ignored because of a lack of proper Cabinet discussion. Thatcher ceased to be regarded as an electoral asset and Conservative MPs began to turn against her. Finally in 1990 the Cabinet revolted and forced her to leave office.

Prime Ministers have rarely enjoyed conditions that made it possible for them to govern with little reference to ministers, MPs and their parties. For this reason they have normally pursued a more consensual approach than that associated with Thatcher - but one not synonymous with weakness. During James Callaghan's premiership Labour was divided, and his government's majority in the Commons was insecure, even non-existent. He used his Cabinet as a means of maintaining political unity, thoroughly assessing proposals and testing their effectiveness. During the International Monetary Fund crisis of 1976 through a series of Cabinet meetings, and supported by his Policy Unit, Callaghan secured agreement to cuts in public borrowing. Callaghan was criticised by the politician and historian Edmund Dell for maintaining cumbersome procedures during a national emergency. Yet through this method he was able to arrive at the decision he wanted, while enabling his colleagues, representing various wings of the Labour Party, to argue through the different options and arrive without resignations at a binding conclusion. The government and its Prime Minister benefited from his having staff to help devise a package that was scrutinised from a variety of political and departmental perspectives and concluded in a consensus. With the assistance of his aides Callaghan exercised power, but not in the narrow, short-term sense of bypassing others and avoiding discussions.

For much of his premiership Tony Blair has been in an exceptionally strong position, because of his personal popularity and electoral success. Drawing on these resources he set out to diminish the Cabinet, using aides partially to supplant some of its functions. He was able to some extent to disregard views within his party; and reduce the influence of the career Civil Service through relying on special advisers. But resistance to his dominance came from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The lack of a powerful Cabinet may have made it less likely that ministers could defeat Blair, but it also meant it was harder to bind Gordon Brown to group decisions. In more recent years - with Blair's popularity declining - ministers have become more assertive over issues such as House of Lords reform. Other resistance to his leadership style has come from the Parliamentary Labour Party, which has frequently rebelled against proposals Blair developed with his aides.

Whoever next occupies No.10 will not enjoy the status of Blair at the height of his power and will not be able to use aides to bypass other sources of authority. Even if a new Prime Minister were to try, the historical evidence suggests that aides are at their most effective when helping to manage relationships with the power-bases upon which Prime Ministers are dependent. Staff should be used to facilitate and influence discussion with ministers, not avoid it. In this way better policy and greater political unity can be achieved, in turn strengthening the position of the Prime Minister. To this end bodies such as the Strategy Unit, which currently formally serves the Prime Minister directly, should be reattached to the Cabinet as a whole: long-term thinking should explicitly be owned by the collective. The Strategic Communications Unit - which takes an overview of government announcements and presentation - should similarly be shifted from No.10 to the Cabinet Office.

The inevitability of controversy

Regardless of the decisions made about staff the new Prime Minister should be braced for some discomfort. The tendency for aides to be objects of public criticism - both for their own actions and as proxy for the premier - is longstanding. Assistants to Walpole were viciously attacked by an array of brilliant writers including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay and Henry Fielding, who made allegations ranging from personal corruption to sexual depravity. Staff to Pitt the Younger were accused of perpetrating lies, lining their own pockets and those of their families, and there were innuendos about their relations with the unmarried premier. Horace Wilson was held to be one of the 'guilty men', blamed for assisting Neville Chamberlain in the appeasement of Nazism. Harold Wilson's so-called 'Kitchen Cabinet' was a subject of gossip and rumour. Though no assaults on Blair and his staff were of the same literary quality as Swift's Gulliver's Travels or Gay's The Beggar's Opera, the substance of many of the accusations or insinuations surrounding them was the same. One outcome is inevitable - controversy will continue.

They are jointly writing The Prime Ministers' People: At Power's Elbow, from before Robert Walpole to the Present.

There was a news release [pdf file, KB] about this paper on 11 June 2007 and coverage in The Times.

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Further Reading


A. Blick, People Who Live in the Dark: The History of the Special Adviser in British Politics (London: Politicos, 2004).

G.W. Jones, 'The Prime Ministers' secretaries: politicians or administrators?', in J.A.G. Griffith (ed.), From Policy to Administration: Essays in Honour of William A. Robson (London: Allen and Unwin, 1976).

G.W. Jones (ed.), West European Prime Ministers (London: Frank Cass, 1991).

D. Kavanagh and A. Seldon, The Powers Behind the Prime Minister: The Hidden Influence of Number Ten (London: HarperCollins, 2000).

J.M. Lee, G.W. Jones and J. Burnham, At the Centre of Whitehall: Advising the Prime Minister and Cabinet (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998).

E. O'Malley, 'Setting choices, controlling outcomes: the operation of prime ministerial influence and the UK's decision to invade Iraq', in British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 9 (2007), pp. 1-19.

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