Max Stafford


It would be fair to say that the current tempests in our politics (both nationally and internationally) have not gone unnoticed. 

Brexit and Theresa May’s withdrawal deal are now such an ever-constant news headline that even Mr. Blobby has got in on the act. Meanwhile the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Donald Trump’s continual unpredictability and riots in France leave international politics also feeling as though it were a slightly outlandish plot in a Shakespearean tragedy. However, as with a Shakespeare play, it’s not just the main players that we should be focusing on. Any leader – dictator or democrat – needs a Polonius. Of course, the Polonius of Shakespearean fame emerges as somewhat of a bungler, so this may not be the best comparison – though Trump’s Twitter feed might benefit from consideration of the line that ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’. Nevertheless, leaders do need trusted advisors who they can rely on to both give good counsel and, when needed, drive forward the mechanics of implementing their decisions. It’s at this juncture that we encounter a curiously under-examined role – the chief-of-staff.


The chief-of-staff is, in many ways, not a recent political innovation. J. R. Steelman became the first White House Chief-of-Staff in 1946. However, not all presidents have found the need for such a role (for instance, John F. Kennedy did not have an official bearing this title, though various other advisors largely filled this kind of role). Since 1979, under Jimmy Carter, the role has been filled consistently and, since 1946, there have been 28 White House Chiefs-of-Staff in total. Their functions have been varied – some have been firmly planted within the administrative functions of the White House whilst others, such as Trump’s John F. Kelly (pictured right), have been actively involved in hiring-and-firing of senior government officials and cabinet secretaries (most recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions). The centrality of this role to the shaping of presidencies (their character and decisions), is captured in a recent and insightful book by Chris Whipple. The Gatekeepers delves into how Chiefs-of-Staff have not only used the position to exact influence over the President but have also used the role to create a springboard for taking their own careers up to the most senior level (with Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Leon Panetta just a few of those who have done so). Likewise, their British counterparts have enjoyed similar successes with Tom Scholar (2007-2008) now heading the Treasury and Ed Llewellyn (2010-2016) now serving as Ambassador to France.

Indeed, the Chief-of-Staff role is becoming ever more a key aspect of British politics, too. Though they might not have been household names, there have been 7 Downing Street Chiefs-of-Staff to date (with the late Jeremy Heywood often falsely-cited as an eighth – a claim he was keen to dismiss in an answer to a question at this Institute for Government event in 2016). This list runs from Tony Blair’s appointment of Jonathan Powell in 1997. Some may argue that David Wolfson was the first, under Thatcher, but Powell was certainly the first to be formally titled as a Chief-of-Staff and who fulfilled the functions that we might recognise as defining the role. These include: oversight of the Downing Street staff; being a senior spokesperson for the Prime Minister; ensuring that the internal governmental machinery (the political, rather than Civil Service, side) fulfils the PM’s need for information and, finally; the gatekeeper function alluded to by Whipple. 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.

Of course, as with many political roles, the evolution of the various chief-of-staff posts has not always been a smooth one. Former Cabinet Secretaries Sir Robin Butler and Sir Richard Wilson (1988-1998 and 1998-2002, respectively) have discussed issues they encountered in accommodating the system to this semi-rival power within the heart of government. Though some of this was certainly personality-based (with Wilson since suggesting that he only found out from Powell’s subsequent book that they didn’t get on), it reflects well-established difficulty in introducing innovative reforms to central government machinery. 

The personality factor is itself important. One has only to think of Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, May’s infamous double act, and the backlash against them following the 2017 General Election to grasp at how quickly a Chief-of-Staff may go from the security of the PM’s ear to the precarity of public vilification. May’s current Chief-of-Staff, Gavin Barwell (pictured right), may yet find himself in a similar position. Thus far, he has used his position to try to build internal coalitions of support for the PM’s Brexit strategy (including through placing a close friend into the Brexit Secretary’s job during the last reshuffle). Such moments show the kind of networking savvy that any half-decent Chief-of-Staff must possess. However, Barwell could yet come unstuck (and presage the quick downfall of his boss). This may be achieved by his being May’s continual “go-to” ally (along with David Cabinet Office Minister Liddington and Chief Whip Julian Smith) when she wishes to brief both sides of the House of Commons on her contentious Brexit proposals. Already, this approach has led to him shouldering some of the criticism directed at May’s policy, so, continues to affect the way in which his role is seen under the current premiership. These May-era examples highlight a danger for any Chief-of-Staff – you can enjoy considerable patronage from your boss (and, in some cases, dispense its yourself) when their political stock is high but come a heavy storm and you may be the first person to go overboard.

Thus, we can begin to surmise the opportunities and threats for political chiefs-of-staff. You can hold unprecedented access to your leader. You have the opportunity not only to know their mind but, also, to shape it – Powell, Hill and Timothy all stand in testament to this. Indeed, in the latter two’s case, it was alleged that they challenged cabinet ministers’ authority in this regard. It is also easy to deduce why leaders might want a trusted ally in this role. Pick the right person and you have a staff member who can be relied upon to form the core of your Praetorian Guard, fighting for your view to prevail over others and prepared to let you know when you’re wrong. Dick Cheney, a former Chief-of-Staff to Gerald Ford (and later Vice-President) summarised it thus, in conversation with Whipple: ‘Somebody’s got to be the go-to-guy who can go into the Oval Office and deliver a very tough message to the president.’ They are, in many ways, an illustration of the much over-hyped concept of a “power-behind-the-throne” (consider Kelly’s role as sacker-in-chief for Trump since Summer 2017). 

 Alternatively, an uncontrolled person occupying this role can serve only to undermine their boss and attract too much attention towards the machinery that supports them. A good chief-of-staff becomes adept at using power behind the scenes on their leader’s behalf. A better one does it without constantly stamping their name all over the operation. There is a Machiavellian element here – be the powerful hand of your master, but don’t attract too much scrutiny yourself. Therefore, despite chief-of-staff’s frequent habit of stepping out in to more frontline roles after their time in office, perhaps the best occupiers of this role are the ones that we hardly hear of. In the interests of transparency, we should know who they are, given their importance as key advisors, but in the interests of effective government we shouldn’t read about them too often. 

Find here, then, the trace of that much-vaunted political legend – the almost-anonymous advisor and chief fixer. Get it right and your boss is always the story, whilst you carry on oiling the wheels for them. Get it wrong and you could be the story, whilst the wheels come flying off their axel. Chiefs-of-staff are political appointments but the best of them never forget that they are also required to be adept administrators, thoughtful advisors and clear strategists. It’s a hard mix to find and this only goes towards further underlining why leaders are keen to hang on to them. Unless they mess up. Then we’ll all know whose fault it is!


Max Stafford is a final-year PhD student at Canterbury Christ Church University. His thesis examines the political leadership of the Mayors of London, New York and Amsterdam between 2000 and 2016. He was previously a political advisor and has lectured at universities in the UK and Europe. He tweets at @PhDMayors. 

Image of John Kelly: Secretary of Defense CC by-2.0

Image of Gavin Barwell: Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government CC by-ND-2.0