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The Chief Problem? A Key Figure at the Heart of Boris’ Downing Street
Stephen Barclay is one of the most powerful men in Britain and, yet, the likelihood is that you don’t know what his job involves. In fairness, as of two weeks ago, he has three jobs – MP, cabinet minister, and Downing Street Chief of Staff. It’s this last one that you probably know the least about, but it’s also potentially the most important to Boris Johnson’s chances of survival in the weeks and months ahead.
The role of Downing Street Chief of Staff involves numerous functions, dependent upon a prime minister’s preference for how they execute it. The Institute for Government recently summarised them as follows:
- ‘Being the prime minister’s most senior political adviser
- Managing other political advisers
- Working closely with the prime minister’s principal private secretary
- Working with the wider team of private secretaries to try to get the government machine to do what the prime minister wants
- The gatekeeper role: sitting outside the prime minister’s office and controlling who gets in and who doesn’t
- Seeing what the prime minister sees, and accompanying them to meetings
- Brokering deals with other ministers’
We might regard these as the essential aspects of the job, with incumbents placing their interpretations upon how far the role allowed them to insert themselves into policy-making and strategy formulation. In short, they’re a big cheese. Previously, I wrote about the significance of chiefs, as well as Boris’ earlier issues with the role, for the PSA.
This makes Barclay’s appointment all the more interesting. As mentioned above, he’s currently carrying out the role whilst undertaking two other full-time jobs. Previous chiefs have signalled their reservations about this. Gavin Barwell (Theresa May’s chief, 2017-2019) praised Barclay’s ‘…nice guy…’ nature but also suggested that the job is too big to undertake if faced with competing time demands. Jonathan Powell (Tony Blair’s chief and the first to hold the role, 1997-2007) commented that there is perhaps no other political system where this role’s equivalent sits in the legislature. As Powell suggested, this could bring greater scrutiny of the role (and the way in which its tasks are carried out) than Johnson intended when appointing Barclay (notwithstanding his desire to see greater parliamentary confidence in his Downing Street operation, in light of Party-gate). Taken together, these criticisms underline the unusual selection of Barclay as the new chief. However, his actions since accepting the role might raise further eyebrows.
In particular, Barclay’s newspaper comments, last weekend, suggest a more public-facing and muscular chief may now be in place, time-commitments notwithstanding. In his comments, Barclay promised that, post-COVID, the Conservative Party would be seeking to return to pursuing a smaller state. It is highly unusual to see a chief making such a direct policy pitch so publicly. All chiefs do, of course, pursue policy interests. For instance, Jonathan Powell was closely involved in the Northern Ireland Peace Process, Nick Timothy & Fiona Hill (May, 2016-2017) were intricately involved in the creation of their party’s 2017 General Election manifesto, and Gavin Barwell brought his prior interest in housing with him. Dominic Cummings, a de facto chief under Johnson’s earlier premiership (2019-2020), was of course famous for driving the government’s attention on Brexit, proposed Civil Service reform, and initial responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for a chief to essentially headline the government’s weekend policy pitch is still very unusual, and it tells us much about Barclay’s potential future relationship with the role.
It places Barclay firmly in the centre of Johnson’s “fightback”, after the Party-gate revelations. The much-mooted “Operation Save Big Dog” and “Operation Red Meat” strategies for bringing Tory MPs back on side have seen government ministers seeking to appeal to backbenchers with attractive policy sops. A suggestion that the state may now be shrunk back, after astronomical expansions of its fiscal capacity during the earlier stages of the pandemic, is likely to be a soothing balm to some of those Tory MPs who have been looking increasingly wobbly over the past few months. Yet it remains of interest that it was a chief, and not a Treasury minister, offering this public commitment. This brings us to the second point – Barclay’s potential gain in status from becoming chief.
As a Tory operator with a “nice guy” image and ability to reach out to backbenchers in fraught times (with the previous experience of being Brexit Secretary coming into play, here), his appeal to Johnson is obvious. But it’s Barclay’s potential future ambitions that more fully explain his public intervention. He is known to be very close to Rishi Sunak, a leading contender for replacing Johnson if a leadership contest occurs, and has been tipped as a future Chancellor if Sunak makes it to Number 10. Thus, having signalled your fiscal policy chops before any future government is appointed has obvious attractions to Barclay. This, in turn, shows us that Barclay believes that being Chief of Staff offers a strong and respected platform from which to make such a pitch – another sign of how significant the role has become.
The other challenge facing Barclay is helping to create Johnson’s promised Office of the Prime Minister, in the light of Sue Gray’s initial Party-gate report. Others, such as Alex Thomas of the Institute for Government and Patrick Diamond of the Mile End Institute, have considered the issues that this institutional reform may bring (along with its history as a much-discussed and rejected idea). What is clear is that, if the reform does go ahead, this will be no easy task for Barclay. In particular, he will be required to work with at least two other key figures who have been asked to oversee changes to the running of Downing Street – a new Permanent Secretary for Number 10 and a Chief Operations Officer (COO). The former of these roles has existed before (when Jeremy Heywood held the role between 2008 and 2011) and was effectively a de facto Chief of Staff (originally held jointly with Stephen Carter, from January to October 2008). The latter role of COO is entirely new and it is not yet clear how this role will be differentiated, given its billing as a ‘head of people’. The role of a Permanent Secretary might help to revisit how the Civil Service and political elements of Downing Street work together, especially if the new appointee can work well with Barclay.
On the other hand, the COO’s tasks could cut across a lot of their work, leading to a continued sense of a dysfunctional prime ministerial office. So far, the Permanent Secretary and COO roles have been combined, under interim official Samantha Jones. There are four key elements of any Downing Street setup, summarised as the “4 P’s”: the Private Office, the Political Office, the Press team, and the Policy Unit. It is not unheard of for there to be significant rivalries and disconnections between these elements, highlighting why one key co-ordinating authority is needed to draw them together for a prime minister. However, with a potential three senior roles cutting across each of them (combined with the traditional power-based tensions between officials and political appointees), there is much potential for continuation of Downing Street’s current dysfunctionality. What the permanent division of responsibilities with Barclay will be, and who is ultimately seen as Johnson’s senior adviser, remains unclear.
What is clear is that the role of Chief of Staff continues to matter. This is compounded by the importance of having the right person holding the role, able to act as a foil to the Prime Minister. They then need the room and capacity, without the confusion of competing with too many other “chiefs”, to be able to deliver for their political master. It may be early on in this period of Downing Street reform, but the new operational shake-up (and the speed with which it is set to be implemented) indicate that this may not be about to become any easier.
Max Stafford is currently Lecturer in British Politics at De Montfort University and a member of the PSA. He researches into political leadership (UK, US and Western Europe), particularly with regard to consideration of new methodologies for approaching leadership assessments.