Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he served both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
Working in Downing Street as a special adviser can sometimes feel more like participating in a medieval court than a modern workplace. As unedifying as it sounds, your capacity to get things done depends on your proximity to the Prime Minister – and your ability to persuade people inside and outside the building that you speak with his or her unbending will.
There are a myriad of structural reasons why this is true; the power of the office; the limits on the principal’s time; the quantity of decisions that need to be taken; the fact that Number 10 is supervisory in its nature rather than delivery- focused; the geography of the building; the tension with the permanent civil service, which would rather you were kept in your place back at party HQ.
That Number 10 is a court has been true to a greater or lesser extent for every political operation in recent British history. The best ones work hard to control this tendency as best they can by building efficient processes and delegated chains of command around the Prime Minister of the day. The alternative almost always ends up in an unsatisfying blend of inertia and chaos where decisions get put off and bad things happen.
When Boris Johnson walks up Downing Street next week – as we must surely now expect – his team will have to work harder than most to battle this dynamic. Our new Prime Minister has strengths, but is famously detail-light in his approach and has a disposition for avoiding difficult conversations. This is a recipe for factionalism. There is also the not insubstantial fact that he has set himself a deadline of October 31 to extract the United Kingdom from the EU – with an amended deal or without one entirely – and there is no time to waste.
To the special advisers walking into Downing Street with Johnson next week, I wish you the very best of luck. For all the harsh intrusions about to follow in your personal lives, it is a professional experience like no other. But to make it last longer than a few months, I would thoroughly recommend taking some important decisions on process early on. You will be surprised at how quickly the court mentality overwhelms you if you don’t.
By this time next Saturday morning, I’d suggest there are four things for Team Johnson to get done as a priority.
First, write down an organisational chart of which special adviser does what and who they report to. They cannot all report to the Prime Minister. One person must be in charge as the filter for everything else. If Johnson is going to be the Chairman, then his Chief of Staff must be the model CEO with his own reporting lines. I would also get the new Prime Minister to talk to the civil servants about the structure as soon as he is done being briefed on the launch codes. This may sound basic and prosaic, but it will instantly improve the way in which the permanent machine serves you and your priorities; most Number 10 operations spend months pulling this together and wish they had done it sooner.
Second, work out what you’re going to do about the new Prime Minister’s box. Most decisions taken in Number 10 flow on paper – where the Prime Minister receives filtered advice on policy issues from across the building and then has to tick, cross or amend. The process for preparing the box, and the extent to which Prime Minister Johnson engages with the box are critical – otherwise he will end up with various aides claiming to speak on his behalf.
Given the personality of Johnson, there are a few options that might work – all of which will make the civil service turn white, but which are probably necessary. The box could be dispensed with entirely, and Dowing Street could move to a ‘live decisions’ mentality on an office tool like Slack – whereby only the Chief of Staff has the authority to message the PM.
Or the Chief of Staff could do the box – but unless they are elected, there are constitutional implications. Or the bulk of decisions could be taken out of Number 10 entirely, and transferred to a strong Deputy Prime Minister who is across the detail and works out of the Cabinet Office – but be prepared for the loss of power that this entails.
Third, write down your political strategy on Brexit (obviously, keep it tight and don’t leak it). Nothing is real in politics until it’s written down. It’s fair to say that our putative Prime Minister has a broad cross-section of support amongst both his advisers and his parliamentarians. There are those who see departure from the EU without a deal as a desirable outcome in itself. There are those who see the aggressive posturing of recent weeks as a necessary negotiating tactic to get an improved Withdrawal Agreement. And there are those who see the rhetoric of recent weeks as ludicrous campaigning which should be dispensed with post-haste after next week.
Then there is the interlinked question of whether a general election is something to be supported to break the Brexit airlock – or something to be avoided at all costs until after departure day. Ditto whether a second referendum is in extremis preferable to a general election after all other options have been exhausted. Unless you have clarity on objectives and strategy as a united team, you will end up reacting to events rather than leading them.
Fourth, the Director of Communications needs to be clear with the civil service right at the beginning that it is time to inject a greater sense of modern campaigning into the Number 10 operation. This will involve closer integration with CCHQ – which itself must be revitalised – than has been seen since the period 2013-15.
Despite incremental progress in recent years, the Whitehall press machine still runs on a rigid system of morning broadcast rounds, Prime Ministerial op-eds and a bit of supporting social media as an afterthought. It doesn’t really reflect the way in which the communications landscape has changed in the past decade; from top-down disciplined packages to a constant conversation on social where authenticity and lightning speed are prized. Nor does the established way of doing things make the most of Johnson as a communications asset. Just as Alastair Campbell refreshed government communications with the advent of the infamous ‘grid’ in 1997, a similarly direct approach is needed early before the Prime Minister gets sucked into the established way of doing things.
Governing is harder than campaigning. Governing from an institution like Number 10 is harder still. Governing with next to no majority in an emerging constitutional crisis is another order altogether. So to the new Johnson team: give yourself the best chance of succeeding on your own terms with the right structures. Medieval courts may have suited rulers from a previous time – but they didn’t have to worry about elections around the corner.