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.
We know a great deal about what our prime ministers do, but little about the people who work for them. In his nearly 1,000-page memoir of his 1964-70 government, Harold Wilson makes no mention of Marcia Williams, his ubiquitous political secretary. The same is true today, where powerful but little-known figures work a few paces behind the famous door.
Entering the building you come first to a front hall, with a distinctive black-and-white checked marble floor. The corridor to the left leads to Nos 11 and 12. To the right lies the bow-windowed room once occupied by Alastair Campbell, now home to less obtrusive press handlers, and a communications team greatly expanded over the last 30 years. A second, smaller hall follows, then the corridor to the cabinet anteroom, where ministers assemble before cabinet meetings. The view through the halls is the building’s most impressive vista, and it is here, on either side of this long walkway, that staff gather to applaud departing prime ministers. But it is to the left where real power lies, in two small offices close to the cabinet room itself.