A common political reaction to an insurmountable problem is a flurry of irrelevant activity. That is what is happening in Downing Street right now.
There is a new chief of staff, Stephen Barclay MP, charged with bringing discipline and order to the chaotic procedures. In the midst of panic, the constitutional novelty of the Office of the Prime Minister is being hastily minted. A new policy supremo, Andrew Griffith MP, is offering backbench policy committees. Guto Harri, the new communications chief, opened up by pointing out that the Prime Minister was not a complete clown. There was even a ministerial reshuffle in which a sinecure was invented for Jacob Rees-Mogg, all in the forlorn hope of changing the subject.
This is all rather desperate displacement activity and cannot work. The truth about all advisers is that they draw their power and their authority from the top. A Prime Minister whose writ is known to run across Whitehall will have advisers who are feared and obeyed. Advisers such as Nick Timothy or Dominic Cummings were, for all their intellectual distinction, figures defined by Theresa May and Boris Johnson. If Cummings was more feared than Timothy, that was largely because Johnson commanded his party, and in time the electorate, more securely than May ever did.
The sorry truth for Barclay, Griffiths, Harri and whichever unfortunate civil servant replaces Martin Reynolds as principal private secretary is that they cannot escape the shadow cast by their boss. Given that they owe their appointments to the desire, on the part of the Prime Minister, to change who he is, the whole thing is a bit of a farce.
That political power resides in the Prime Minister is why we should be relaxed about special advisers. There is occasionally a minor squall about the unelected, all powerful consigliere who surreptitiously siphons off the power for his (it is usually his) own purposes. From Piers Gaveston, the close confidante of Edward II, through Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell to Maundy Gregory, who became notorious for selling honours for David Lloyd George, political power has always attracted Machiavellian counsellors and they have always been the subject of envy and fascination.
In his biography of Lloyd George, Roy Hattersley dates the modern special adviser from Gregory, a businessmen that the prime minister brought into government during the First World War. The practice was consolidated and extended in 1964 by Harold Wilson, who saw his advisers as guardians of his political ambitions against a hostile civil service. Since Wilson the numbers have grown rapidly. John Major’s government recruited between 34 and 38 special advisers at any one time, and Tony Blair’s between 70 and 84. The latest data, from July 2021, shows that there were 117 special advisers in government, 44 of whom worked for Johnson with a further eight working for Rishi Sunak. Most of these advisers will provide a necessary and unobtrusive channel of advice for their ministers, working in perfect harmony with civil servants, as Nick Hillman says in his excellent defence of the special adviser Lessons from Personal Experience.
Even though there is a very good defence of special advisers, it is hard to apply it to the appointment of Barclay as chief of staff. Clearly, nobody whose political career were not in Johnson’s hands would take the post, and his appointment raises (as Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government has pointed out in the New Statesman) all sorts of constitutional tangles. Barclay is MP for North East Cambridgeshire and the Cabinet Office Minister. Does this mean he will be more senior in his capacity as chief of staff at No 10 than as a senior minister? How will cabinet ministers take to being bossed about by an MP and a minister who is, at least in theory, one rung below them down the ladder? The very point of the chief of staff is that the authority, the responsibility and the accountability are all supposed to refer back to the Prime Minister. Barclay has separate lines of accountability out to the voters of North East Cambridgeshire and the scrutiny of Parliament.
The chief of staff ought to be serving the boss, and his boss should be the prime minister. The template comes, as it does so often, from American politics. British political obsessives are more than usually fascinated by American examples and there is something attractively Leo McGarry about the title “chief of staff”. The first person to hold the title in Britain was David Wolfson, who was Mrs Thatcher’s chief of staff from 1979 to 1985. Then the post disappeared until Jonathan Powell was appointed to it by Tony Blair. Ed Llewellyn did the job for David Cameron and Gavin Barwell did it for Theresa May.
The job is all-consuming. When I saw Powell doing the job up close, he would not have had time to fit in ministerial duties in the Cabinet Office or a constituency surgery. He had to be the political gatekeeper and he had to be in all the important meetings with the prime minister. He had to manage the flow of information into the principal, he had to be alert to possible problems on the horizon and he had to be a link with the cabinet, to explain to them what the prime minister was thinking and to relay information from them to him.
Barclay will not realistically be able to do any of this and the reason why not is, in the end, not constitutional but political. For all the flurry of superficial change, nothing has actually altered. Boris Johnson remains Prime Minister and, as his egregious remarks about Keir Starmer and Jimmy Savile show, he is still who he is.