The Only Way is Essex has simpler plot lines and more responsible behaviour than Downing Street in the last couple of days. Can any of us keep up? Did Carrie oust Lee? Or did Dom start the rumour that it was all Carrie’s fault to make Boris look weak and henpecked? Will Dom be gone by Christmas? Is everything Allegra’s fault? Are Michael, Henry and Munira staging a coup? Did Lee leak the lockdown a few weeks ago? Does Lee still have the chicken suit? Most important: why is everyone at the centre of our Government acting like they’re auditioning for reality TV?
I understand that when you’re doing the most important job of your life, feelings run high. You can have more impact in a day in Number 10 than in decades in most jobs. So much is at stake that sometimes you have to go to the mattresses to get what you need. So there will be arguments. There will be anger. There will be rivalries. In a high-functioning organisation, those tensions are the grit in the oyster that helps to get the job done. But today’s Downing Street is all grit and no oyster.
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This matters, as if we needed reminding, because there is work to be done. We are in the midst of a global pandemic and staring recession and large scale unemployment in the face. We are on the brink of Brexit, the biggest structural disruption to our trading relationships in generations. The longest political union in the world’s history, between England and Scotland, is fracturing before our eyes. And those are just the small problems.
Climate change. Our ageing population. Building solidarity between increasingly diverse citizens. Technology firms that stretch our understanding of the relationship between state and corporation. Global power shifting eastward… Every moment spent bitching about colleagues is a moment wasted.
Downing Street should be a serious place. It should attract and retain serious people. I don’t care if the Prime Minister’s chief of staff once had a job as a chicken: everyone has to start their career somewhere. I care if he — or she — has a theory of change, an understanding of how they might make a difference in that job to the wall of policy problems we face. I expect them to be wise enough to understand what has been tried before, confident enough to try something new, but humble enough to learn from what others figured out first. All we get from the current crop is the arrogant assumption that their personal brilliance is enough to conquer all difficulties, an assumption made even more laughable by the fact that they can’t even get the person sitting at the next desk to like them.
Almost everyone in Number 10 at the moment is a campaigner at heart. There should always be campaigners in the Prime Minister’s office. People who are good at the game of politics. They are the people who keep the ship afloat. But they are not the people who choose the destination or the route. You also need a cadre of thinkers and deliverers, who will make the difference to what the government does, not just what the government says. Without them, politics is just a parlour game — and it is no wonder it descends into briefings, counter-briefings and subterfuge.
In her book, Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, Isabel Hardman argues there are systemic problems with candidate selection, and the way people get promoted to high office. The system is set up to choose and elevate people with a set of skills that isn’t actually what a modern democracy needs. I agree with every word she says. And there are similar systemic problems that mean we get the Wrong Political Advisers too. Fiona Hill, who served as Theresa May’s joint chief of staff, gave evidence this week to Parliament’s Public Administration Committee in which she admitted it was nearly impossible to persuade anyone good to go and work for the Prime Minister’s office when she was there.
We assume that Boris is just too tribal to offer a job to anyone outside the Vote Leave camp. But it’s also possible that no one else would take the job, given the conditions on which it would be offered. As a friend who considered a senior cabinet office role put it to me: “They’ve made it clear they don’t want to be helped, so what’s the point in expending any personal political capital on them?”
We live in challenging times. We are told that millennials are queuing up to find jobs with purpose. So public service ought to be an attractive option for talented people who want to make a difference. But what do you get for giving up a few years of your life to the Downing Street machine? Mediocre pay. Terrible working conditions. The knowledge your boss — the PM — might quit or be ousted any moment. The constant fear that colleagues will be briefing the press about your mistakes, or leaking secrets of your personal life to undermine you.
One of my colleagues in Number 10 put his name to a briefing which happened to note that the age of consent was lower in some other countries. It explicitly ruled out lowering the age of consent in the UK. Nevertheless, a Conservative colleague leaked the briefing and my friend was named in the Daily Mail as little better than an advocate for paedophilia. Who would want to work in a toxic environment like that, where you can trust no one?
The very virtuous might put up with it out of duty and purpose. You ought to get a positive feedback loop: as the government demonstrates its impact, more and more people want to be part of it. Boris’ majority government could have switched us into this mode. Unfortunately, we are still stuck in the negative feedback loop that started under Mrs May. The worse the government is, the fewer good people want to get involved. Sacrifice my comfortable life to end homelessness? Maybe. Sacrifice it to spanner about, accomplishing nothing? No thanks.
So we end up with the Wrong Political Advisers — the ones with few options, less experience, and limited social skills — working for the Wrong Politicians. It’s hardly a surprise that government has been such a basket case for so long.
The news that Dominic Cummings is off does give Boris Johnson the chance to press the reset button. A Prime Minister with an agenda, and a commitment to delivering on it, ought to be able to attract talented people who want to keep their heads below the parapet and do the job. He simply needs to make Downing Street a healthy place to work. Recruit doers, not ranters. Build a culture of trust and compassion between colleagues. Make sure people go home on time, and see their family. Give them confidence their jobs will last for years, not weeks. Stop fighting and start getting things done.
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