Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
Should Theresa May get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line in the next few weeks – and the balance of probability still suggests she will – attention in Westminster will gradually begin to focus on the next Conservative leadership election.
Millions of words will be written about the contest that ensues and the path to become Prime Minister. About the runners and riders. About the politicking with MPs in the precincts of SW1. About pacts and alliances between different slates and candidates. About who is best placed to win a vote amongst Conservative members. About where people stand on future relationship negotiations with the EU. About an agenda for the country beyond Brexit.
Far less will be written about the process of exercising power once the winning candidate crosses the threshold into 10 Downing Street.
This is understandable. The emotional and physical energy needed to fight a leadership election – or indeed a general election – is such that politicians rarely give much advance thought on how to make the office of Number 10 work for them. This is supplemented by the fact that politicians, and the special adviser apparatchiks who serve them, are rarely good at process or people management; these skills are unfortunately not rewarded on Westminster’s greasy pole.
Nonetheless, the cohort of future Conservative leadership candidates would do well to start thinking privately about the structure of the Number 10 they want to build. It is an investment that will pay dividends. Otherwise the new Prime Minister will find that once his or her customary honeymoon period is over, he will have little ballast against events, the ferocious news cycle, Cabinet egos, civil service intransigence, the lack of a parliamentary majority – and the million other obstacles that sit in your path.
A former Prime Minister once said that you enter office at your most popular and least capable – while leaving at your most capable but least popular. Here are some practical suggestions for how you can reduce the capability gap when walking up Downing Street for the first time:
- Make sure you choose your Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff carefully– these are two of the most important decisions you will ever make. These should be ‘grown ups’ that have heritage in your party, knowledge of policy, an understanding of Parliament and the UK’s history of governance and – critically – experience of running a significant organisation. They are unlikely to be drawn from your previous political advisers, no matter what loyalty you feel to them. They need to be capable of articulating your strategic priorities – primarily policy and secondarily the political communication of policy – to the people who will translate the words into action: Cabinet ministers, the senior civil service, party headquarters and your MPs. They should have the gravitas to credibly challenge Cabinet ministers who are blown off course by events – as well as the ability to win polite arguments with mandarins who will claim superior knowledge. They cannot be thugs; you rarely get the best out of people by telling them they are idiots. They must be able to delegate but not abdicate. These jobs are among the hardest in the world and you need to recruit and pay accordingly.
- Decide what your priorities are and then stick to them. In the current dynamic, you must have an honest and tangible vision of the end state of our future relationship with the EU – and perhaps 3 or 4 ambitious domestic priorities that form a coherent governing philosophy. These are to be achieved at all costs. Leave the rest to your Cabinet ministers.
- Accept that strong Cabinet ministers are generally an asset to the Government. If you prevent them from speaking or doing things under their own steam then you will get stasis. The Number 10 Policy Unit should return to its original form as a cerebral brains trust working on long-term policy ideas for the next manifesto rather than the day-to-day marking of homework for departments.
- That said, break up the Treasury within your first 24 hours and transfer the function of setting and monitoring public spending to the Cabinet Office. You cannot really exercise oversight of policy unless you keep finance within your remit.
- Be clear on how the Civil Service really works and use the process to drive your policy objectives rather than letting your political staff complain about wily officials. The key to this is the Cabinet Office. Make sure your senior political advisers get to grips early with the little known and understood Economic &Domestic Affairs Secretariat (EDS). It is the conduit through which you will be able to retain reasonable control and hold departments to account.
- Retain a Director of Strategy to support you, your Chief and Deputy in refining how you communicate your priorities to the public. They must have the freedom to think away from the bubble and would ideally spend part of their week living in a marginal seat away from London.
- Appoint a Director of Communications who understands analytics and data. The Number 10 press operation will always involve an element of satiating the daily thirst of the pack. But the primary role of the Communications Director is to ensure the Government’s policy priorities are registering with the public – and in a way that delivers you political reward. To do that you need to be tracking what works and what doesn’t through evidence.
- Never forget that you are the Leader of the Conservative Party as well as the Prime Minister. Running the country will take up most of your time. But you should spend at least a couple of hours in your week with the leadership of CCHQ to discuss high level political strategy. Day to day political tactics are beneath you but setting a direction on how to win the next election is not. You lose political definition for your project at your peril.
- Take responsibility for setting the culture of your organisation yourself. Even though you are Prime Minister you should address all the circa 200-250 Downing Street staff – political and civil service- every Monday morning so you can acknowledge high performance and reinforce core delivery priorities. Many Chief Executives of comparably sized organisations do this and so should you.
- Keep Number 10 as the Prime Minister’s ceremonial residence but move the rest of the staff (including the Prime Minister’s working office) to a large open-plan space nearby. The current setup of a pokey Georgian townhouse encourages silos and the shielding of information.
None of the above are magic bullets and will amount to little if there is a lousy occupant in Number 10. But equally a leader with promise can only become great if they are supported by the right process. It may not be as exciting or immediately rewarding as plotting your Westminster climb. But it will have a more material impact on how history views your tenure behind the big black door.