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  1. Politics
  2. Labour
12 March 2024

How will Starmer run No 10?

The party leader wants an inner cabinet to help change Downing Street – but reform shouldn’t get in the way of ideas.

By Freddie Hayward

When prime ministers enter No 10, they want to change it. Harold Wilson brought in external advisers such as Bernard Donoughue to lead a policy unit. Tony Blair created the PM’s Delivery Unit and the Strategy Unit. David Cameron established the National Security Council. Dominic Cummings had grand ideas about recreating the power of the White House in Downing Street. Liz Truss briefly sought to break the Treasury with an in-house economic unit.

Now, a new report from the Institute for Government calls for the next government to try again. It recommends strengthening the centre of British government by bolstering support for the Prime Minister, countering Treasury dominance and ensuring the government outlines its priorities. All good stuff. The Treasury decides what goes in spending reviews which, in turn, affect what every other department can do. The PM, meanwhile, lacks the institutional capacity that their cabinet can draw on. And outlining long-term priorities can only help focus Whitehall on delivery.

Picking up on some of the recommendations, Labour is reportedly considering an inner cabinet of Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves, Angela Rayner and Pat McFadden. This group would decide overall strategy and budgets, while “mission boards” will drive delivery.

But hasn’t the government tried this before, as the list above demonstrates? An “inner cabinet” – see Wilson, sofa government and the coalition’s quad – is not new. More importantly, the risk is that Whitehall reform becomes a way for the government to indicate its priorities, not deliver them. Want to make the country more innovative? Then create a department for science, technology and innovation. Or reduce regional inequality? Then send some civil servants to Darlington. The easy option is to blame the system of government, in the same way that circular parliaments are praised as the solution to disharmony and angry exchanges rather than solving the issue people are actually angry about.

The structure of government matters. But so do the ideas of those in positions of power. As I’ve written before, Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have different perspectives on power – one is an institutional reformer, the other a proud upholder of fiscal orthodoxy. Here is potential for conflict, not personality-based but policy-based. (I wonder whether Starmer asked the former Bank of England chief and freshly appointed adviser to Reeves on the National Wealth Fund, Mark Carney, if quantitative easing, about which Will Dunn recently wrote a feature, was the right decision for economic growth.)

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But it’s unclear whether Starmer is poised to counter Reeves’s Treasury-based power. At the Institute for Government report’s launch, Gordon Brown called for Labour to create a “National Economic Council” jointly chaired by Reeves and Starmer to focus the government on economic growth. Harold Wilson established the Department for Economic Affairs to do something similar, while the Treasury dealt with the public finances. Only one still exists.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: A think tank for the age of Starmer]

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