The Prime Minister’s Office: opacity with a purpose

Andrew Blick
By: Andrew Blick

The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has provided much inspiration for this blog lately. It continues to do so with its inquiry, currently open, into ‘[t]he role and status of the Prime Minister’s Office’. In its call for evidence, the Committee notes that ‘[t]he status of the Prime Minister’s Office (“Number 10”) is opaque…Nominally, it is a part of the Cabinet Office, yet it is largely operationally distinct. Its functional relationship with the Cabinet Office is unclear.’ This observation is without question correct. Indeed, it has been the case from the point at which David Lloyd George first instigated a Cabinet secretariat, following his ascent to No.10 late in 1916. But what is a proper response to it?

One way of approaching this issue – as some no doubt will – is by taking a managerial perspective. This standpoint might suggest a need to clarify and formalise relationships; identifying what the role of the Prime Minister is, and the staff and powers needed to help perform it better. Pursuing this line, one might conclude that some kind of Department of the Prime Minister or Prime Minister and Cabinet, fully resourced and accountable to Parliament, is a desirable development. As has long been recognised, the Cabinet Office is a diffuse institution. Supporting the Cabinet – the purpose suggested by its name, and for which it was originally conceived – is only part of its function, and it contains within it a shifting accumulation of units and functions: at present, it is associated with 23 different public bodies and agencies. A tidying up exercise could be in order. Furthermore, some might hold that it would reflect the reality of the Prime Minister being the ultimate head of both the Cabinet Office and the government.

But a constitutional rather than managerial approach might lead in other directions. The role of the Prime Minister, and by extension the office supporting it, has always been ambiguous. Different holders have long taken contrasting approaches, and will continue to do so. Witness the sharp divergences of political style between Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Moreover, the particular circumstances within which premiers operate vary, and can be hard to anticipate. Johnson, for instance, could not have imagined the challenges with which he would have to contend during 2020. While other Cabinet members tend to have more clearly defined briefs, the Prime Minister – as the most senior member of the government – needs to be able to respond swiftly to issues as they arise.

For these reasons, the uncertainty and fluidity of the office of Prime Minister – rather than being simply an historical anomaly in need of correction – reflect the nature and requirements of the post itself. If they think they need to, and if senior politicians around them accept their doing so, premiers can be assertive, wielding influence that extends through the Cabinet Office and well beyond, across Whitehall. Incumbents such as Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, for instance, were both able to drive from the centre the handling of emergencies of complexity at least as great as those faced today. Yet, if a Prime Minister prefers – or is compelled – to be more restrained, the system also allows for a more collegiate approach. Underscoring the flexibility associated with the role, earlier this year, government was able to continue functioning while the Prime Minister was physically incapacitated.

One might take the view that this arrangement is overly informal, amateurish even, and should have no place in contemporary government. This perspective might lead us to conclude in favour of formally establishing a Department with a more clearly defined set of functions for which the Prime Minister should answer to Parliament. But we need to be aware that to do so will have wider consequences. It would alter the balance of power at the centre of government, perhaps in counterintuitive ways.

Lacking the structure of a ‘written’ constitution, internal checks of the executive – such as those provided by Cabinet as an institution of collective government – have traditionally been of pronounced importance within the UK system. With a fully-blown Department, the premier might become more clearly the head of the executive, with the strength of Cabinet compromised. In this sense, prime-ministerial authority might expand. Yet to define is also to limit. If having a Department made them more clearly focused on specific functions, premiers could find that, when unexpected and pressing issues suddenly arose – as they always will – they are less able to act swiftly in response.

Many prime ministers – dating back at least as far as Lloyd George – have considered forming their own Department. To date, they seem to have concluded that to do so would be to create a cumbersome bureaucratic instrument which would create more problems for them than it would solve. More staff does not necessarily equate with greater power. Comparisons with the private sector could support this point: in a large corporation, the direct support team for a Chief Executive Officer is unlikely to be larger than the senior team attached to No.10 at present (though there is not the same doctrine of collective responsibility as applies to UK government). A different view might prevail at some point. We might one day see the formal establishment of a Department of the Prime Minister/Prime Minister and Cabinet. Like many such changes, it would have consequences extending beyond its immediate focus.