Boris Johnson’s ‘unprecedented’ Whitehall ‘power grab’

PM to bolster Downing Street at expense of Cabinet Office

Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street
The prime minister wants to cut up to 91,000 civil service jobs
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson will take control of large parts of Whitehall in a planned shake-up that pundits claim will create a de-facto “department for the prime minister”.

According to The Times’ Red Box editor Patrick Maguire, the “unprecedented upheaval” will see the Cabinet Office “split” in two, with “officials responsible for implementing domestic policy across the civil service” answering directly to Downing Street “for the first time”.

The “power grab” appears to be “an attempt to silence internal critics” of Johnson’s “patchy record on delivery”, said Maguire, as the prime minister regroups following the conclusion of the Metropolitan Police inquiry into lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street.

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Centralised power

The PM “promised a shake-up of the Whitehall machine” in the wake of the so-called Partygate scandal, Politico said. Now, he has followed through with plans to “beef up his office at the expense” of the Cabinet Office, the department responsible for coordinating the delivery of government plans.

Civil servants were informed yesterday of the change, which “fulfils the prime minister’s ambition to centralise responsibility for driving through economic, domestic and security policy in No. 10”, The Times reported.

Cabinet Office officials responsible for “economic, domestic, national security and intelligence policy” will now “answer directly” to No. 10’s new permanent secretary Samantha Jones. The other half of the department will become a “corporate headquarters” responsible for overseeing further “reform of Whitehall”.

In an internal email seen by the paper, civil servants were told the shake-up would “enhance the support that is offered to the prime minister and the cabinet” and empower “the nerve centre” of government.

“Through this change we will deliver some immediate benefits: dedicated leadership, clearer accountability and greater focus on the two halves’ respective missions,” the email to Whitehall staffers said.

Civil service cuts

The Cabinet Office overhaul was announced just a week after Johnson tasked senior ministers with achieving his goal of returning the number of civil servants to 2016 levels, “which ​​​​means reducing the workforce by 91,000”, said The Spectator’s political editor Katy Balls.

The planned reduction was expected to “begin with a recruitment freeze, which would include suspending the civil service fast-stream, the scheme designed to attract top-level graduates”.

Johnson’s chief of staff, Tory MP Steve Barclay, has also begun an “audit of civil servants”, after aides were “alarmed to learn there are estimated to be around 700 working in HR in the Cabinet Office alone and 80 still working on Cop26, even though the summit ended in November”, Balls added.

‘Control room’

“Successive administrations” have considered the Cabinet Office to be “too unwieldy and powerful”, said The Times’ Maguire.

Streamlining the department and bringing more of its officials “into the orbit of No. 10” was also an “ambition” of the prime minister’s former advisor Dominic Cummings, Maguire continued. Johnson’s then right-hand man proposed the introduction of a “Nasa-style ‘control room’ in the Cabinet Office’s Whitehall headquarters”.

But the decision now to hand “significant power” to new permanent secretary Jones – who was appointed directly by the PM – “will be viewed in Whitehall as an attempt by No. 10 to take sole ownership of the government’s domestic agenda before the next election”.

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