Yet behind that drama another revolution is taking place which could have profound consequences for the fate of the Prime Minister and her Government: a wholesale reorganisation of the Downing Street machine.
The changes are dramatic. Great chunks of the Number Ten operation, including the Policy Unit, are getting more or less abolished, with the bulk of their functions shifting over to the Cabinet Office. The in-house policy team seems to be shrinking from 22 people to just six of whom just one, John Bew, is a survivor from the Johnson court.
These changes are proving controversial in the relatively narrow circles which both support right-wing political objectives and take a close interest in the machinery of government. There is widespread concern that they will erode the Prime Minister’s capacity to drive her agenda forward. Why?
Before proceeding to outline the case being made against the changes, there are a few things to bear in mind.
First, both critics and defenders alike are working with imperfect information. Liz Truss has not spelled out in black and white the thinking behind the overall overhaul of the structure. Nor can it be ruled out that her team might be negotiating senior hires from the private sector which they can’t trail for one reason or another.
Second, a lot of people in those above-mentioned narrow circles have either lost jobs or seen friends lose jobs in the transition to the new order. The arguments stand on their own terms, of course.
Third, there is a case to be made in defence of the changes. Rachel Wolf, herself a Downing Street veteran, has made a set it out over on the Public First website, and it’s well worth a read – even if she does acknowledge a lot of the dangers outlined below.
We are going to take these in two batches: concerns about process and the impact on government, and concerns about the importance of personnel and the effect these changes might have on staffing.
The overarching concern about the changes on the process side is a loss of control. A smaller Downing Street operation means more autonomy for individual departments and, inevitably, more relative power for the Treasury. It also increases exposure to treading on media landmines because you don’t see them coming.
All of this might well be bearable; Wolf certainly suggests such trade-offs might be worth it.
Yet with only two years until the next election and a veritable hydra of serious crises to deal with, it remains to be seen if Truss and her team are really prepared to take such a laid-back approach to media management for very long. Dominic Cummings didn’t manage to keep up the whole disdain-the-grid act, even in the context of a freshly-minted majority and genuine cause to think the Government was secure.
Yet the problems actually run deeper than that. Another way of thinking about bandwidth problems is that there is only so much that can ever be put in front of the Prime Minister. Which makes who controls that a very important question. Now, much more than before, it will be civil servants in the Cabinet Office, not political staff in Number Ten.
(One cynical suggestion was that, at the same time, a cull on the Downing Street side increases the power and prestige of those who remain. We couldn’t possibly comment.)
Then there’s the question of the Policy Unit’s efficacy. It’s true that it couldn’t press what Wolf calls the “nuclear button” of a direct intervention from the top very often. Nonetheless, Downing Street staff bear the auctoritas of the prime minister in a way Cabinet Office staff will not. The latter will therefore find it harder to get information and cooperation out of departments even where the centre desires it – a quite different proposition to giving ministers more freedom day-to-day.
Moreover, the perceived strength of the Policy Unit et al is actually something the sitting premier can do something about, should they so choose. If they spend more time with it, they can charge it up. Tony Blair used to hold regular dinners on various topics with his policy team, amongst others, which allowed them to bear the imprimatur of his personal authority out into government.
Then there’s the question of how well suited the Cabinet Office is for the new role. It originally came into being to facilitate collective agreement in Cabinet; as the number of issues requiring cross-departmental coordination has expanded, so has it.
But that coordination role is quite different to actually originating policy. Is the CO’s Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat (EDS) well-suited to that task? Amy Gandon, a former senior staffer, suggests not.
At the same time, some Whitehall veterans argue that the advantages offered by the Policy Unit’s unique setup will be lost. Having special advisers and civil servants working hand-in-glove allowed it to launch a “two-pronged attack” on a troublesome department or departments; it isn’t yet obvious if or how the new Cabinet Office setup can do the same.
There are also concerns about the inevitable loss of institutional memory that attends such a scorched-earth approach, and bafflement at the decision to dispose with the services of so many of the…
This is not the place to do a deep-dive into the CVs of all the new hires; suffice to say there is some concern that Truss, in Wolf’s words, “has chosen relatively inexperienced people” for some key roles.
But as noted above, the hiring process might not yet be complete and the Prime Minister may seek out the “really experienced people” Wolf argues will be needed to provide additional capacity, whoever they are.
Yet there are also broader concerns that the new arrangement will make it structurally more difficult to find those people, and that it rests on a misdiagnosis of what went wrong with the Number Ten operation under Boris Johnson.
At the root of the first point is the relative lack of prestige of the Cabinet Office relative to Downing Street. This will not just make it harder to impose the Prime Minister’s will on departments, as discussed above, but make it harder to recruit top talent too.
Why? Because these jobs require long hours and often huge sacrifices for what is, as far as top talent is concerned, unspectacular pay, not to mention giving ACOBA discretion over which jobs you can take for two years after you leave.
The sheer prestige of working in Number Ten, for the prime minister, has been part of what draws good people in. It isn’t the sort of thing that’s likely to show up in a strictly rationalist organogram, but it does matter. The same roles, in the case of civil service positions, will nonetheless be less attractive in a different building.
As to the second, it would be understandable if Truss wanted a slimmed-down Downing Street to try and avoid the chaos that gripped it under Johnson.
Yet according to some who experienced that chaos, the problem there was not the actual machinery-of-government stuff but turf wars between cliques of senior staff with ill-defined responsibilities and well-developed grudges. “Strong fences make good neighbours”, is how one put it: where the division of responsibilities was clear, the problems were minimal.
The danger, in this view, is that Truss risks undermining her ability to deliver her programme in order to solve a problem which was not really systemic so much as an artefact of the fact that Downing Street was run (or at least presided over) by Johnson and his carousel of favourites.
The bigger problem
There are plenty of other fine details of this question we could tease out. But before getting too lost in the weeds, it’s worth stepping back and considering whether the real problem here is not the detail of the reorganisation, but the fact of it.
How have the Conservatives managed to be in office for more than 12 years, and still not even settled on how they want Downing Street to work?
In this case, the result seems to have been the Truss team picking up a plan which was floated by (Cabinet Office) civil servants under Johnson but killed off.
(Some of the same civil servants who then took part in the transition talks with the Truss team, according to one insider; “the deep state has played a blinder” is how they summed that up.)
There is an ‘as above, so below’ aspect to this incoherence, of course: levelling up was the Party’s central mission until Liz Truss just stopped using the words; various burning injustices and big societies have come and gone before that.
But it speaks to a deep failure to get to grips with the state which has doubtless greatly hindered any effort to shift the country in a more conservative direction over more than a decade in power.
Will it be different this time? Any Conservative can but hope so. But recent history suggests the grounds for such optimism may be thin.