Downing Street’s iconic facade masks a dysfunctional centre of government. A major refit is needed to ensure the next prime minister can be a 21st-century leaderby Anthony Seldon / April 28, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Rear view of Nos 10, 11 & 12 Downing Street, from a 1949 illustration. Click here for a key
The black door to No 10 is the most renowned portal in Britain. But what goes on behind it? Inside is an improbable office for a prime minister, where the 17th century meets the 21st. In 1997 a member of Tony Blair’s team, used to the open-plan offices at Labour HQ, found No 10 “too genteel and peaceful, the place too compartmentalised” to direct the transformation of Britain. Stephen Carter, brought in by Gordon Brown in 2008 to run No 10, reflected that the building’s design “made for mystery and intrigue.” Yet a deeper problem may lie within. The last century of British premierships has been a story of stunted ambition: only Asquith, Attlee and Thatcher achieved Blair’s ambition of an “agenda-changing government.” And while one building cannot account for all the disappointment, its warren of small rooms—providing venues for meetings and a home to the first family—inadequately fulfils its purpose of supporting the prime minister. This election will be an opportunity to rethink the very centre of British power.