Could Boris Johnson run Downing Street like City Hall?

The approach broadly worked for Johnson as London mayor, but there are difficulties in porting it over to Downing Street. 

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How will Boris Johnson run Downing Street? In answering this question, both his close allies and his more recent supporters cite City Hall, where despite an admitted lack of focus on detail and drive, mayor Johnson was still able to carry projects like the new Routemaster, the cable car between the Royal Docks and the O2 and a massive increase in the number of cycle schemes.

I’m not, for the avoidance of doubt, saying that these were all good public policy decisions. Only the expansion of cycling infrastructure can be seen as an unquestionably Good Thing. The other two are straight-up failures. The new Routemaster was a waste of money that actively reduced capacity in London’s bus network and cost more than an off-the-shelf alternative bus. The cable car may be a pretty enjoyable way to spend half an hour but it’s gloriously impracticable and costly. They are, however, examples of projects conceived, initiated and carried through to completion by Boris Johnson’s administration, which is the essence of almost all successful government policy.

There are, of course, exceptions: you don’t need to be particularly good at project management to liberalise opening hours, remove regulatory barriers to new housing, or prohibit drinking on the Underground, as Johnson also did. You simply declare it and you’re essentially done. But if Johnson wants to be re-elected, his government will have to be able to do project management. The obvious, off-the-shelf blueprint is City Hall. Could it be emulated?  

The crucial difference between City Hall and Downing Street is that City Hall is the pinnacle of a quasi-presidential system with a legislative body providing scrutiny. Downing Street is at the heart of a parliamentary democracy where the legislative body scrutinises, provides funds, and is responsible for providing most of the personnel for government departments.

So there are two things you would have to do to run Downing Street like City Hall: first you’d have to increase the size of Downing Street, and secondly you’d have to reorganise Whitehall.

The first makes a lot of sense, Johnson or no Johnson. A long-term complaint of prime ministers is that Downing Street is relatively underpowered, and that this makes it harder to get their programmes through. This is exacerbated because leaders of the opposition tend to rail against the sitting prime minister’s lack of consensual government and surplus of aides by pledging to cut down on staff. Prime ministers then often realise about a year into their time in office that none of their manifesto pledges are on track – see: David Cameron – and then reverse many of the cuts they made. By following the City Hall model and beefing up Downing Street considerably, Johnson would account for his own weaknesses and quite possibly make British government work a bit better.

That’s the easiest part. The difficulty is that “running the government like City Hall” also has implications for the overall structure of Whitehall: you’d ideally make the number of departments quite a bit smaller and have a couple of big delivery departments fronted by serious administrators. After a disorderly start to the job, that was Johnson’s approach at City Hall. The approach was floated by Johnson allies in the Telegraph, and while some of the departmental structures mooted were a little bit crazy, the idea isn’t necessarily a bad one. Plenty of European nations with similarly sized states to ours have fewer government departments. It’s not dissimilar to the doomed “overlord” model that Winston Churchill pursued during his peacetime government.

The problem is that running cabinet government that way has big implications for patronage and therefore the ability to get legislation through parliament and manage the party. When deciding whether to retain the services of Livingstone-era officials or bring in new figures as mayor of London, Johnson didn’t have to consider how it would go down among various factions in parliament because there is no analogue at City Hall. He could simply bring in people he thought were best qualified to get his agenda through. That’s a luxury no one has in Downing Street, particularly when inheriting a parliament like this one.

It also has significant implications for the future of the Conservative Party. It’s not the only reason why the post-Johnson London Conservatives have problems, but it is nonetheless true that the Johnson approach has produced just one politician (James Cleverly) you could credibly describe as a “mayor of London candidate” without giggling. The rest simply don’t have the all-round skills to make a fist of running for office in a prominent election. The May-era Conservatives already had a problem that May didn’t bring new blood through and it would, inevitably, exacerbate it if the preferred shape of Whitehall was to facilitate a relatively disengaged prime minister supported by a smaller number of high-powered administrators.

There’s also the added hurdle that ideally Johnson’s first and only project for his first 100 days would be to beef up Downing Street, with a wider reorganisation of Whitehall as his second step. But of course he has another project in his first 100 days: to get the United Kingdom out of the European Union. This speaks to the big Brexit reality that very few politicians want to accept – if you want to do Brexit then your big political project is not simply leaving but reimagining and reworking our institutional relationship with the rest of Europe, and indeed much of British regulation. That’s the hangover of the shared lie of the referendum campaign, when Vote Leave wanted voters to think our membership could be unpicked quickly and painlessly, and Britain Stronger In Europe wanted voters to believe that our membership was a small deal with few implications for British sovereignty.

But he will also have to navigate the hung parliament he inherited from Theresa May and potentially fight an election, all while significantly increasing the size of Downing Street. It’s theoretically doable but it has the potential to make the early days of a Johnson government chaotic and catastrophic. Of course, the problem is that if they don’t do this then it may mean that the early days, middle days and final days of a Johnson administration are chaotic and catastrophic. But it underlines that simply “running Downing Street like City Hall” will have more teething problems than you might think.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.