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Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Appointment

Volume 708: debated on Monday 7 February 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on his appointment as Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister and associated machinery of government changes.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

Before I begin, I am glad to have this opportunity to offer my congratulations to Her Majesty the Queen on reaching the 70th anniversary of her accession. She is a hero to me and millions of others, and I know that the House will join me in wishing her many more years.

In a statement to this House last week, the Prime Minister pledged to make changes in the way Downing Street and the Cabinet Office are managed, so that we can get on with the job that this Government were elected to do, and that is what the Prime Minister is in the course of doing. As the Prime Minister has said, we need to continue our recovery from the pandemic. We need to help hundreds of thousands more people into work. We need to deliver on our ambitious agenda to level up the entire country, improving people’s opportunities regardless of where they are from.

The changes that the Prime Minister made to his senior team over the weekend will bring renewed discipline and focus to his programme of priorities and deliver them faster for the people of the United Kingdom. In his statement to the House last week, the Prime Minister accepted in full the general findings of the Cabinet Office’s second permanent secretary, Sue Gray, in her investigation into alleged gatherings on Government premises during covid restrictions. The Prime Minister offered a sincere apology and also accepted Sue Gray’s recommendation that

“we must learn from these events and act now.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2022; Vol. 708, c. 23.]

In response, as the House will be aware, the Prime Minister has asked my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to provide political leadership within No. 10 as his chief of staff. As the Government have set out, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will be in charge of further integrating the new Office of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office to make operations at the heart of Government more efficient and effective, and ensuring that the Government agenda is better aligned with the Cabinet and Back Benchers. He will be working very closely with the Cabinet Secretary on the new structure. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will also work directly with his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that levelling up is a priority for all Departments and is delivered at a rapid pace that brings about tangible improvements in the day-to-day lives of the people of this country.

For the avoidance of any doubt, I would like to make it clear to the House that, in undertaking this role, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been given additional responsibilities. He remains a member of the Cabinet and is not a special adviser. The Prime Minister is expanding on the already cross-cutting role of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and giving the chief of staff enhanced, ministerial authority to promote levelling up while also playing a senior co-ordinating role in No. 10 under the direction of the Prime Minister.

There are wider benefits to this new approach. It will significantly strengthen Cabinet Government, meaning an enhanced role for both Ministers and Parliament itself. This is a chief of staff who will himself answer to the electorate and who therefore has the democratic authority to direct civil servants and special advisers as a Minister of the Crown, something an unelected adviser cannot do.

Finally, the Government set out that there would continue to be further appointments over the coming days, with a particular focus—

Order. I am not sure whether the Minister is aware that this is a UQ not a statement. Only three minutes is allowed for the Minister; you are now on four, so I am sure that you are coming to the end.

Thank you, Mr Speaker—I was just on my last sentence. I was saying that the Government set out that there would continue to be further appointments over the coming days, with a particular focus on improving engagement and liaison with Parliament. Full ministerial responsibilities will be announced in due course.

I echo the Minister’s comments regarding the Queen.

It is always nice to be at the Dispatch Box against the Minister but, quite honestly, where is the chief of staff? The Minister mentions what the Prime Minister said. He also said that this change gives “an enhanced role” for Parliament, yet the chief of staff’s very first act is to refuse to even turn up here to explain his own job. But maybe the Paymaster General can tell us: is it a ministerial job, a public appointment, a party role—it is not a special adviser—or is it something that does not even exist yet? Apparently, the chief of staff will not get a salary; perhaps he should join a trade union. Will he appoint or manage advisers or officials? How will he relate to the permanent secretary? Who will appoint staff, as the Minister mentioned, to the new office of the Prime Minister? When will the office be set up, and on what budget, or has the Chancellor given him a blank cheque? Is the post to have a separate Department from the Cabinet Office or are they to merge? How will he answer to us: will he face me here as the chief of staff or as the Minister for No. 10? Is he still in charge of dealing with the channel crossings, tackling the pandemic, protecting the Union, veterans policy and every other priority of the Cabinet Office? This Government are in chaos and the country is paying the price.

It is always a pleasure to appear shadowing, if I may put it that way, the right hon. Lady, but she will know that the chief of staff role was created by Tony Blair in response to Labour figures such as Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell, who had, of course, huge powers in the Blair years to direct civil servants and who were unelected. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is answerable to this House and will present a full range of responsibilities to this House in due course.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that nobody is better qualified to be both chief of staff and Chancellor of the Duchy and Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office than my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay), given that he already has the widest possible experience of interdepartmental responsibility, for the Treasury, for health, for financial services and for Brexit, and has the comprehensive knowledge and capacity both to understand and to have the necessary authority and stature to carry out the new functions allocated to him?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as usual. One could hardly have a more qualified person to be chief of staff than my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay), a former Secretary of State answerable to this House, and now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, an elected person answerable to this House as well as the electorate.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay) is not in his place because I wanted to congratulate and welcome the country’s new senior civil servant to his post. I do not quite know how someone who already has two full-time jobs is going to salvage Downing Street’s reputation when the Prime Minister has often claimed that they all broke lockdown rules and regularly get tanked up in Downing Street because of the immense workload and the pressure of the job. However, there is something far more serious here: paragraph 3.12 of the Erskine May “Public service disqualification” section says:

“All persons employed either whole- or part-time in the Civil Service are disqualified; and it is immaterial whether they are serving in an established capacity”.

It is clear as day that the right hon. Gentleman is the new chief of staff at Downing Street and he is also a serving Member of this House; he cannot be both, and according to Erskine May he has disqualified himself from that role. So, when will the Government be moving the writ for the by-election?

I had no idea that the hon. Gentleman presented himself as an expert in Erskine May, but I have to say, with respect, that I do not think many others would. The reality is that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay) is not a civil servant; he remains a servant of this House—a servant of the people of this country—democratically elected and highly accountable.

On the whole, Governments do not do things well, so will my right hon. and learned Friend persuade the new chief of staff to concentrate the Government’s efforts on doing fewer things a bit better?

As the House will recognise, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has a long history of ministerial service in this House, which he has performed par excellence. I have no doubt, and nor do my colleagues, that he will continue to perform his functions with excellence, whether they be in 10 Downing Street or elsewhere.

But being chief of staff to any Prime Minister is more than a full-time job—and to this Prime Minister, with everything we know about him, it is an impossible one. Just look at the collateral damage of those who have fallen by the wayside having come within close proximity of him. How will the right hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire do all those jobs and serve his constituents?

In the same way, if I may suggest, that the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster can also be the shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, shadow Secretary of State for the future of work, shadow First Secretary of State, deputy Leader of the Opposition, deputy leader of the Labour party and Member of Parliament for Ashton-under-Lyne—highly accomplished appointments.

The appointees announced over the weekend are significant figures, but in any office restructuring, and particularly one such as 10 Downing Street, disruption is inevitable. What reassurance can my right hon. and learned Friend provide that that is taken into account and that the sole focus will be on delivering for the Government?

My right hon. Friend is quite right to raise that point. I assure him that the Prime Minister and Government’s entire focus is on delivering on the manifesto promises that resulted in the biggest Conservative election victory that we have seen since the 1980s. We are, have been and will continue delivering on them.

As perhaps one of the Members of the House most prolific in asking questions of the Cabinet Office, I note that the Department is incredibly slow in replying to written questions and letters. Does the Paymaster General think that this change will make Cabinet Office responses faster or slower given that the Minister responsible now has even more responsibilities? Was being Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster just not enough?

To be fair, I think that I am responsible for answering parliamentary questions, and I think I am right in saying that the statistics have dramatically improved in the last four and a half months.

I certainly welcome the fact that unelected officials are being replaced by Members of Parliament in the Government, because one problem in recent years has been the drift, with Government and Parliament going in opposite directions, so having Members of Parliament in these positions will improve things. Does the Minister agree that, had this change been imposed a while ago, it would have been great fun to have had Dominic Cummings at the Dispatch Box to answer questions?

I am not going to agree with my hon. Friend on that point, if he will forgive me. However, I do agree with the substance of his point—he has hit the nail on the head—that accountability, transparency and the link with Back Benchers of this House will be delivered thanks to this appointment.

It is a bit difficult, is it not, to argue that there will be greater accountability when at the first hurdle the man is not even here to be accountable? It is a preposterous appointment—a sow’s ear of an appointment—which confuses the various different aspects of Government and makes it far more difficult for us to hold the right hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay) to account. Does anyone in Downing Street yet realise that the problem is the lack of control; it is the lack of accountability; and it’s the fibs, isn’t it?

I do not know what the hon. Member means. What I do know is that the Government are delivering on our manifesto promises, as I said. He must recognise that there will be increased transparency and accountability because an elected Member of Parliament answerable to this House will be chief of staff at No. 10.

We are making changes at No. 10, and still that lot over there on the Opposition Benches keep moaning and whining. Does the Minister agree that if they want to have a say in who works at No. 10, they should do something they have not done in 20 years—win a general election?

My constituents are rightly concerned to see the Prime Minister pursue a departmental merger, the cost of which is likely to surpass £10 million in taxpayers’ money, at a time when we are facing a cost of living crisis. It is well documented that No. 10 is used for living and working, with porous boundaries, and we are all well aware of the Prime Minister’s well documented frustrations with his flat. Will the Minister rule out any public money being spent on any additional refurbishment of the Downing Street flat, in the context of this merger?

I do not think the Downing Street flat has the smallest thing to do with this matter. It is and has always been the case that the 10 Downing Street operation is an integral part of the Cabinet Office. They are already interconnected physically, metaphorically, literally and in every other way. This change recognises that and creates a new avenue of increased democratic accountability by having a chief of staff at No. 10 who, for the first time, can come to this House and speak from this Dispatch Box.

I am sure that moving bums on seats works, and I am confident that it will in this case. I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend will agree with me that a stream of blue narrative Conservative policies will now burst out of No. 10.

We should remind ourselves why we are in this predicament, or why the Government are in it: the Prime Minister made a slur against the Leader of the Opposition during the statement last Monday, accusing him of failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile—something that the victims of Jimmy Savile say has no basis in truth and should be withdrawn. What is it about the Government that makes them think they know better than the victims of Jimmy Savile? Is not that the reason why they cannot find anyone decent to fill these roles?

The two things are completely unconnected. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to characterise the appointment in that way. It must be recognised by all and sundry that this appointment is of someone who has served this House and the Government in a ministerial capacity for many years; he could hardly be more experienced. He will present the House with the accountability, transparency and quality of administration that it would expect.

Last week the Prime Minister promised change at the top, and we are seeing it swiftly delivered. I welcome this appointment and the creation of the Office of the Prime Minister, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, as Conservatives, our longer-term ambition should be to reduce the cost of the civil service to the taxpayer?

Yes, and the fact that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will accept no extra salary will, of course, reduce costs accordingly. My hon. Friend is quite right.

It is a real shame that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster could not make it to the Dispatch Box this afternoon. Will the Paymaster General tell us whether the new chief of staff will manage the new communications director, and just what the job status of the communications director is? Government sources have denied this morning that he could return to his lobbying firm, Hawthorn Advisors, if his No. 10 role for some reason—who knows—does not last long. Will the Paymaster General state categorically that that will not happen in any circumstances?

It is very peculiar to ask me, from the Dispatch Box, to predict the future, but if I were to predict the future, it certainly would not have Labour in it.

Having worked with the new chief of staff when he was a Secretary of State and having seen his work when he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I urge the Minister to ask him to use this as an opportunity. Sometimes, fewer people in No. 10 can operate better than a large number. This is an opportunity to drive efficiencies across those two areas.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He knows that quality is often better than quantity. That is what we have with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the role that he will perform.

Can the Minister give us an example of a decision that the chief of staff will take in that new capacity, different from a decision he might have taken as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, for which he will be accountable and answerable to this House?

I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will make myriad decisions on a daily basis. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see what they are, but they will be decisions that deliver for the people of this country, unlike his party.

I have been listening intently to the urgent question, but I am still confused about what the Opposition are asking. As far as I am aware, this new appointment is what the Gray report wanted and it is the Prime Minister carrying out the Gray report. Are the Opposition saying we should not listen to the Gray report?

My hon. Friend is right to refer to the Gray report. One of the points raised was about the fragmentary nature of arrangements. This is addressing that problem directly. I am very surprised the Labour party is not welcoming it with open arms.

This is absolutely the end of days! My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) asked very specific questions to the Paymaster General, which he has been unable to answer. The reality is that someone has been appointed to a job when it has not yet been decided what the responsibilities are. Will he ensure that, once the Government understand what the right hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire will actually be doing, he will come to this place and answer the questions my right hon. Friend reasonably asked, so we can actually hold him to account, because this Government are an absolute shambles?

I will resist the temptation to say that that is rich coming from the hon. Gentleman. He would know precisely, and his party would precisely know, what a shambles is, and they prove that every day of the week. To answer his question, yes, he will hear from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in due course. He will be presentable and answerable to this House, unlike chiefs of staff who have gone heretofore. That is the fact of this appointment, and it is one the hon. Gentleman cannot answer.

My right hon. and learned Friend and I are both very pleased with the new chief of staff appointment. I wonder if he might watch “The West Wing” with me to pick out the best traits of either Leo McGarry or Josh Lyman that our colleague in his new position has.

I would like to know what part I could play in such a role. We do have, and we will have, in our chief of staff—[Interruption.] I did not hear that, Madam Deputy Speaker. What I will say is that we will have, in the chief of staff who has just been appointed, someone who will be accountable and responsible to the British people.

It seems the Welsh Government were not forewarned of the Chancellor’s intention to introduce a council tax rebate during his statement last Thursday on energy prices, despite that being a clearly devolved policy area. That means no policy has been announced in Wales, leaving many of my constituents, who are already concerned, in a state of confusion. Will the new Office of the Prime Minister prioritise better intergovernmental relations, so that Wales and Scotland are not blindsided by the British Government’s policy announcements?

Every Department of Government, without exception, does everything it can do to support the Union of this country.

I must confirm that I am more interested in having a debate about delivery and the role of the chief of staff in delivering the priorities of my constituents, and less in process. I would also say that a criticism of No. 10 is that it can be overly metropolitan in its focus and Westminster bubble-orientated. Does my right hon. and learned Friend think it is actually an advantage to have a Member of Parliament, especially an engaged one, from the Fens, no less? As a Fen boy, I can confirm there is no less metropolitan place than the Fens, and there could be an advantage in that.

I asked a question of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in this Chamber recently about the failure of the civil service fast track system to recruit black members of staff. Will the Paymaster General give assurances that his right hon. Friend will be able to continue to progress that most serious issue in his new role?

The hon. Lady is quite right to ask that question. That is a very important matter and it continues to be. I can give her that assurance.

In November, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was drafted in to help solve the illegal crossings crisis in the channel. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that solving this issue remains front and centre of this Government’s mission?

We now have a Spad who is not a Spad, so a special status is being created. Will this be the only appointment with such special status?

I do not see this as a special status. This is a Minister of the Crown who remains Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and now has the role of chief of staff at No. 10. It is a highly democratic, highly accountable position. In fact, more so than any of those who went before. The hon. Gentleman should welcome it if he is interested in democracy.

How many of these Downing Street staff departures in the past few days are a direct result of Sue Gray’s report? Have there been any associated findings of culpability against individuals for the failings set out in that report?

It is not good practice to discuss staffing and human resources matters on the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government are doing what they need to do in response to the challenges with which they find themselves faced.