Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
In this life, nothing lasts forever. Not even the nightmare that is Partygate. At some point, hopefully this decade, it will be over. Sue Gray’s report will have seen the light of day; the police will have done what they need to do; and it will be time for British politics to move on.
A line must be drawn under the whole affair — the sort of line that leaves heads rolling. But as much as we need a change of personnel, this won’t on its own be enough. This Government also needs a change of scene. Specifically, it needs to get out of Downing Street.
No matter how many of its inhabitants get the chop, the building will remain. And that’s a problem, because just about every part of it is a reminder of the last two years. The upstairs flat, the downstairs offices, the press briefing room, the garden and even the basement: the entire property is blighted.
Even before Partygate, there was something off about the place. The fundamental problem is the architecture. Downing Street was built as row of terraced town houses — and from the outside that’s how it still appears. But once you’re through the famous front door at Number 10, you realise it’s a trick. The terraces have long been knocked-through into a sprawling complex of oddly proportioned spaces and impossible dimensions. It’s an exercise in Georgian psychedelia and it messes with your head.
You don’t have to believe in feng shui or genii locorum to see the psychological danger of turning a building into something it was never intended to be. Downing Street was meant to be a home, indeed several homes. Yet over the years it’s also become the heart of government. The place has a split personality — it is both formal and informal, institutional and domestic, professional and amateur. It’s no surprise that a “frat house culture” took hold of it.
I don’t believe there’s any excuse for the events of Partygate. But for an explanation as to why so many lapses of judgement could have been made by so many people, the physical environment is a useful place to start. As Winston Churchill once said, “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
Moving on from Partygate isn’t the only reason why government should leave Downing Street. It was a sick building long before Covid. As a workplace, it’s overcrowded. A lot of it is surprisingly shabby too. Even the nice bits generate a den-like atmosphere, which isn’t conducive to good governance. Time after time, we see Prime Ministers become isolated from their Cabinet colleagues, locked behind living walls of scheming flunkies. And, needless to say, the dark corners and labyrinthine corridors provide ideal conditions for in-fighting too.
Boris Johnson has implored the British workforce to stop working from home. He — or his successor — should lead by example. The promised reboot of government should begin with the creation of a proper Prime Minister’s Department working out of a proper HQ. But where exactly?
I know just the place. It’s officially known as “Government Offices Great George Street” or “GOGGS” for short. It’s better known as the Treasury building. It’s not as fancy as the neighbouring Foreign Office, but it underwent a major refit a few years ago — and so wouldn’t need much work done. It would make a fine and functional home for the Prime Minister’s Department, co-located with Her Majesty’s Treasury under one roof.
When Dominic Cummings was in Downing Street, one of his best ideas was to integrate the teams surrounding the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The aim was to mend the most damaging fault-line in Whitehall. Needless to say, this reform went out the window after Cummings was shown the door. The relationship between Johnson and Rishi Sunak has come under growing strain ever since.
And that’s just one of many dysfunctional relationships. The departmental structure of Whitehall creates distance between ministers, both literally and organisationally. Communication between democratically elected decision-makers is mediated through siloed civil service hierarchies with agendas of their own. In order to compensate for the bureaucratic disconnect, Downing Street — as the only bit of Whitehall where political appointees rule the roost — brings as much power as it can in-house, thus further marginalising the rest of the Cabinet.
However, there is an alternative. It’s called the “Beehive” model — named after the round-shaped building where the ministers of the New Zealand government work together in the same location, not in separate departments. When David Cameron was Leader of the Opposition there was talk of creating a British Beehive. The complications of forming a Coalition government meant that those plans were dropped; but — again — there’s now an opportunity to revive them.
The layout of GOGGS provides an ideal hub for the heart of government. The best rooms are in the middle the building, arranged in ring-like storeys around a circular courtyard. Key ministers would have their own offices, but on the same gracefully curving corridor. As in any other human context, communication is best facilitated by physical proximity.
Is there enough room, though? Not at the moment, but GOGGS currently houses various other agencies and departments — like HMRC and the DCMS — that don’t need to be there. Turf them out and there’d be plenty of space for the core functions of the Treasury, plus the Prime Minister’s Department, plus offices for the Cabinet and key support staff.
I’ll admit there’s one big drawback to this scheme. By bringing Cabinet ministers closer to one another, we’d be increasing the distance between them and their own departments. Who, then, would keep an eye on the civil service in the rest of Whitehall? One solution would be to be to appoint a Deputy Secretary of State for each department — someone with experience of managing complex organisations. I doubt we’d find enough talent in the Commons, but suitable candidates could be obtained through the Lords instead.
Finally, what would happen to the largely vacated Downing Street? Would it become a museum? Absolutely not. The downstairs rooms could still be used for Cabinet meetings and other ceremonial events. As for the upper floors, those could be devoted to the building’s true purpose — which is to provide an official residence for the Prime Minister (not to mention the Chancellor). Bearing in mind the relative youth of today’s politicians, both flats should be big enough to provide a growing family with space and privacy.
Or to put it another way, let’s make Downing fit for actual children.