The heart of power

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 leader
April 28, 2010
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.

These two are the most sought-after offices in No 10, occupied in recent years by Gavin Kelly, Brown’s deputy chief of staff, and a civil servant, Jeremy Heywood: the most commanding figure in Downing Street after the prime minister himself, who presides over the PM’s private office. Heywood, whose official title is permanent secretary to the prime minister’s office, rose to prominence working for chancellors Norman Lamont and Kenneth Clarke, before Blair brought him into No 10. Here he won admirers for being able to talk to Brown’s treasury, even amid squabbles over the euro during which Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, refused to speak to Brown or his staff. Perhaps because of this, Brown decided he too needed Heywood’s deft touch, luring him back from a brief stint in the private sector. Described by colleagues as “Stakhanovite”—he arrives at 8am, leaves at 8pm, and spends evenings and holiday on his BlackBerry—Heywood combines a quick mind with deep understanding of the economy, national politics and Whitehall. If the Conservatives win, David Cameron is likely to keep him where he is.

Just beyond Heywood’s den lies the cabinet room itself, measuring only 40 by 20 feet. Largely unchanged in 200 years, it includes chairs once used by both Gladstone and Disraeli. The iconic “coffin”-shaped table is a rare addition, introduced by Harold Macmillan to allow him to keep a better eye on his ministers. After the Oval Office, this room can claim to have witnessed more historic decisions in recent centuries than any other. “I looked at the children asleep after dinner before joining Henry [Asquith, the prime minister] in the cabinet room. Lord Crewe [Lord Privy Seal] and Sir Edward Grey [foreign secretary] were already there, and we sat smoking cigarettes in silence,” wrote Asquith’s wife, on 4th August 1914. “The clock on the mantelpiece hammered out the hour and when the beat of midnight struck it was as silent as dawn. We were at war. I left to go to bed, and as I was pausing at the foot of the staircase, I saw Winston Churchill with a happy face striding towards the double doors of the cabinet room.”

Even in peacetime, Downing Street is the focal point for a constant flow of problems needing quick answers. It is the heart of “the centre,” the term used by civil servants to describe the power nexus at the middle of the British state, encompassing No 10, parts of the cabinet office and the treasury. It is here, in one small building, that the different strands of power collide: the ruling political party, the domestic civil service and the nation’s representatives abroad—all brought together, in theory, around one cabinet table, or in various committees, held in the cabinet office next door.

Yet far from its image as a well-oiled machine, and notably unlike the White House, France’s Élysée Palace or almost any other comparable office for head of government, No 10’s physical limitations have long produced a premiership modelled to the space available, rather than vice versa. And in recent years, more serious accusations have been levelled at the way it manages its conflicting functions; problems most associated with a single small office, through a door at the end of the cabinet room: Tony Blair’s “den.” It was here that Blair’s main aides, Powell, Campbell, Anji Hunter and Sally Morgan, huddled to take decisions. The room is now associated with “sofa government”: a phrase describing Blair’s tendency to exclude the views of Whitehall and the armed services, along with his cabinet and the cabinet committees in which major decisions were traditionally taken—one result being the poor decisions of the Iraq war that did much to damage trust in the government.

Gordon Brown recognised the weaknesses of Blair’s decision-making process, but his inspiration for a different style of working came from an unlikely source: a visit to New York and its mayor Michael Bloomberg in April 2008. Brown was captivated by Bloomberg’s office, in particular his position at the head of a horseshoe-shaped table, with aides to each side. Brown copied the idea for his own private office and political aides, bringing together his most important civil servants and advisers in one place, where formerly they would meet only on an ad hoc basis, or at daily morning meetings. Heywood sat to Brown’s immediate right, flanked by communications director Simon Lewis, and Kirsty McNeill, his young Glaswegian head of external affairs. On the right sat communications expert Justin Forsyth, along with foreign affairs adviser Tom Fletcher, and Gavin Kelly. The horseshoe brought Brown luck, improving internal communications, and even ending some turf wars.

Yet even this trick of office geography could not entirely disguise the tense balance of power, inherent in Downing Street’s few offices, between civil servants and political appointees. Most of those around the horseshoe are officials, but a separate power centre, with a more political purpose, lies up on the second floor, in the warren of six small offices that houses the policy unit. Staffed by political advisers, this was led until recently by Nick Pearce, a donnish 41 year old who once headed the centre-left Institute for Public Policy Research. The unit’s head sees the prime minister daily, advising on domestic policy from rooms more cramped than those available to most undergraduates.

Back on the ground floor, through a connecting door to the building next door, is the domain of Gus O’Donnell, the head of the civil service. Previous Labour governments have been suspicious of this office’s Tory sympathies. But while Blair had a less than satisfactory relationships with his cabinet secretaries, Brown enjoyed a strong relationship with O’Donnell, based on their long working experience together in the treasury. Cameron, if elected, might take a different approach again: his thinking on the civil service has been shaped by Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude. Both hark back to a golden age of Thatcher-era civil service efficiency, and rebel against a perceived micromanagement under Labour, much of it directed from within Downing Street itself.


No 10 was one of 15 terraced houses built in the 1680s, cheaply and on boggy land, by George Downing, a graduate of the newly-founded Harvard University. Today’s No 10, made up as it is from two of his houses with a small courtyard in the middle, still bears Downing’s mark. The two were joined only after George II offered the property to Robert Walpole, generally accepted as Britain’s first prime minister. Further improvements came under William Pitt, the longest prime ministerial inhabitant of the building, who decided in 1783 to start fixing this “awkward house,” by that time already sinking on its muddy foundations. Building work has taken place almost constantly ever since.

Today, as then, Downing Street’s size means sinking fortunes are just as obvious within the building. Bernard Donoughue, political secretary to both Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, described the end of the Wilson government in his diaries in 1976, “the life and action has gone out of No 10 and the days begin to drag… My staff are edgy and uncertain of their future. I now want it all to end quickly.” When a prime minister is fighting for survival, as both John Major and Gordon Brown were for much of their time inside the building, the atmosphere in No 10 darkens, and the staff become demoralised and divided. Brown’s early years were especially dysfunctional, notably when Stephen Carter found himself being briefed against by the political team around Gordon Brown, principally by Damian McBride, the soon-to-be dismissed spin doctor. That those involved worked in nearby offices only made the atmosphere more poisonous. Highs, as during Brown’s first three months, are just as contagious: cramped conditions breed hubris too.

Whatever the atmosphere, the basic functions of the office must run smoothly. In the rooms next to the garden are housed the so-called “garden room girls,” the secretaries who support the official side of No 10. On the same floor, directly below the cabinet room, a mixed research team of civil servants and political appointees gather facts for prime minister’s questions. Back upstairs, and away from the administrators, a grand staircase leads up to an area devoted mostly to hospitality. Visitors going upstairs pass portraits of every prime minister since Walpole. Straight ahead on the first floor, with windows facing over Horse Guards Parade, are three linked state rooms used for formal receptions. Next come two dining rooms, the larger of which is used for grand events, such as Churchill’s retirement dinner in 1955. John Colville, his principal private secretary, described it in his diary: “Lady Churchill took special pains about the food and 10 Downing Street can seldom if ever have looked so gay… There were incidents: the Edens, whose official precedence was low, tried to jump the queue, advancing to shake hands with the Queen… Randolph got drunk and… Mrs Herbert Morrison became much elated and could scarcely be made to leave the Queen’s side.” Yet even this room is an uncomfortable fit for more than 50 people, and contrasts with the larger dining spaces in Buckingham Palace, or the foreign office next door.

The final function of Downing Street is found at the back, on the second floor: the entrance to the flat used by prime ministers and their families. Amid the strain, this was one of the few places to which the spouses of prime ministers could retire. The pressure on the prime ministerial family was felt by Cherie Blair, but it was most famously caught by Clarissa Eden who in 1956 said: “During the past few weeks I have sometimes felt the Suez Canal flowing through my drawing room.” Sarah Brown and her staff established their own personal office space, on the same level at the front of the building. Indeed, no spouse of a prime minister in the last 50 years has had as much influence on their partner as Sarah Brown. She is fierce in her support, and her background in public relations helped him improve his presentation. She, alongside their children, made Brown a less defensive, more secure leader.

The last few years have seen an increasing acknowledgment that all is not well at the heart of British government. This year two studies have discussed problems at the centre. The first, from a House of Lords select committee, argued that both Downing Street and the cabinet office needed to be made more transparent, although it rejected more radical suggestions for a prime ministerial department. A more compelling analysis came from the Institute for Government, in a report (disliked by both officials and political advisers in No 10). “Shaping Up: A Whitehall for the Future” argued that there existed a “strategic gap” at the heart of British government, while Downing Street’s lack of coherent strategy reduced it to issuing “barmy ideas.” The authors also argue that the centre of Britain’s government is too weak, not too strong. The status quo is the worst of all worlds, lacking the clout to make it truly presidential, but insufficiently collegiate to manage other government departments collaboratively.

Such reports respond to the gradual accumulation of problems identified over a decade of Labour’s rule. Tony Blair was slow to understand how Whitehall operated, only getting it working well in the latter half of his time in office. By then a strong policy unit in No 10, led for some of the time by Andrew Adonis, helped ensure that policy was imaginative and properly co-ordinated. Meanwhile new “delivery” and “strategy” units in the cabinet office helped keep track of policy, and develop longer-term thinking. Blair’s sometimes cavalier approach to management made Brown keen both to de-politicise and decentralise, giving more power to the cabinet while reducing the number of political special advisers. But he soon realised that the cabinet is too unwieldy to function as a genuine deliberative body, while No 10 needs strong political direction to function properly.

The Tories favour a smaller but stronger centre. “The more the headcount has gone up, the more the departments have been disenfranchised. We’re not going to micromanage delivery, and we’re not going to have a delivery unit at the centre,” says one leading Conservative. Plans include a “tripartite nexus” of No 10, the cabinet and the treasury—possibly including an open-plan office bringing together officials from all three-—to end the feuding sometimes seen in the Blair and Brown years. “Unlike Labour we are all close friends,” said another senior Tory, perhaps naively. For all his talk of decentralisation, if Cameron wins he is likely to rule through a small group: Steve Hilton (strategy), Ed Llewellyn (chief of staff), Andy Coulson (media), Kate Fall (gatekeeper) and James O’Shaughnessy (probable head of the policy unit). Oliver Letwin would be a key presence, while George Osborne would share an office, perhaps literally, with Cameron.

Yet, as others have before him, Cameron would soon realise that he needs more capacity at the centre, not less. Britain’s centre is unusually small, compared to nearly every other relevant country; too small to enable its leader properly to cover the waterfront of his responsibilities. In evidence to the House of Lords committee, I argued that No 10 should be redesigned to reflect the several roles of the prime minister. As head of the executive branch, he needs a strong private office to connect him to Whitehall. As head of cabinet, an effective (but not overly large) cabinet office. As shaper of government policy, a policy unit for the short term and a strategy unit for the longer term. Add to this the need for a political office, a parliamentary office, an appointments office, and defence, foreign policy and intelligence advisers. Few, if any, of these roles have been adequately fulfilled by the ad hoc and amateurish structure of offices that exist at present. To execute these roles, No 10 needs more space.

A decade ago my colleague Dennis Kavanagh and I wrote that No 10 should regretfully be transformed into a “Museum of British Premiership,” and the prime minister be moved elsewhere. But I have come to believe that one can retain the historic continuity of the building, and achieve the extra space as well. The PM could remain in No 10 and No 12, but also take over the Downing Street flank of the foreign and commonwealth office, with a connecting, new “bridge of sighs,” similar to the corridor built to connect the once separated two buildings of No 10 itself. In the US, the executive office of the president works closely with the adjacent White House. Cabinet would still meet in the cabinet room, offices for civil servants would still be in the old No 10, and the first floor drawing and dining rooms could still be used for smaller functions. No 12 would continue as the open-plan office for the prime minister, but extra office space for the media and other functions could be found in the foreign office, while its splendid Locarno Rooms would provide the grander and larger entertainment space that the prime minister needs. It has always been bizarre that the grand George Gilbert Scott foreign office, with its greatly diminished role from the days of empire and world power, should dwarf No 10. After 275 years of fudge and making do the time has come to make our leader’s office in Downing Street fit for a prime minister.

With additional research from Jonathan Meakin