In 1915, Emperor Nicholas II took personal command of the hard-pressed Russian Army. After a brief surge in popularity, it was soon apparent that this hadn’t solved anything. Two years later, he was deposed.
That’s the history lesson out of the way. Now let’s talk about Boris Johnson’s decision to concentrate Whitehall power in his hands through the creation of a department for the Prime Minister.
According to yesterday’s Times, the current Cabinet Office is going to be split in two. Hundreds of policy officials will now answer directly to Samantha Jones, the new Permanent Secretary in Downing Street.
Meanwhile the other half of the current department “will serve as a “corporate headquarters” for the civil service and oversee reform of Whitehall”, the paper reports.
Johnson is not the first Prime Minister to contemplate such a move – according to this note from the Constitution Society, the debate stretches back to Heath, at least.
However, whilst there might be theoretical efficiency gains to concentrating power in this manner, it only really makes sense as a response to this Government’s difficulties if we believe the problem is that Johnson has not been in personal charge of the key policy areas.
Does anyone actually believe this? Before he became Prime Minister, a common argument made about Johnson is that he would be a good ‘chairman of the board’, a big-picture guy and affable public face of the Government.
Instead, his has shown little capacity for tolerating rivals in his Cabinet, and has concentrated three huge areas of responsibility – the Union, Levelling Up, and Housing, at least two which deserve a the full-time attention of a Secretary of State – in the hands of one man.
The more power is concentrated at the centre, the more the efficacy of the operation hinges on the character of the centre. And as Alex Thomas of the Institute for Government points out, the (likely deliberately) chaotic nature of Johnson’s court not only leads to disjointed policymaking, but will actively discourage able people from stepping up to replace those he fires in his increasingly frequent clear-outs.
Finally, there’s the Czar Nicholas problem: assuming direct control like this leave the Prime Minister with nobody to blame and nowhere to hide if the Government keeps failing to deliver. And no overhaul of the machinery of government is an adequate substitute for an actual mission.