Book Review – No.10: The Geography of Power at Downing Street

Reading this book, as a Politics teacher, was either informative or interesting throughout, it never failed to deliver on one of these criteria. It was a thoroughly enjoyable book to read.

Plenty of films and TV Series delve into the geography of the West Wing of the White House. Of course, The West Wing, is the most prominent of these. Few do the same in the UK. Even Yes Prime Minister is largely based from the Cabinet Room and the the office of the Cabinet Secretary. This book attempts to explain how Downing Street works, how it has evolved and why this is important.

The absence of the New Labour era makes the book feel somewhat incomplete.

It generally does a good job of this, but has one nagging omission. This is that the book explicitly deals with the period from 1945-1997 and gives no more than a cursory glance into the New Labour era. Reading the book, you cannot help but feel a bit short-changed by this. Tony Blair did more than any other modern Prime Minister to revolutionise the mechanisms of government. The subversion of cabinet government and the introduction of ‘sofa government’, although foreshadowed by other administrations, was revolutionary under Blair. Without this consideration the book feels incomplete. The author has however confirmed that the paperback version will have an updated epilogue dealing with New Labour’s impact on Number 10.

Another minor issue is the absence of any map. This is most likely to be on the grounds of national security. However, even declassified floor plans, like those that can be found via google, would have provided a helpful reference point when reading the book.

A Downing Street Floor Plan from 1931

In many ways, the presidentialisation of role of Prime Minister has made the ‘geography of power’ more important. The more that an administration moves away from tried and tested procedure the more emphasis is placed on physical access, with unelected figures like Alistair Campbell and Dominic Cummings holding significant power.

One thing that is made clear throughout the book is that the physical size of Downing Street has grown alongside the growth in prime ministerial power and their dominance over government. Office space has always been a premium in Downing Street and has seen the living quarters of Prime Ministers pushed into a self-contained Second Floor Flat. Much has been written about the growth of prime ministerial power and the presidentialisation of the office. The author of the book adds little new to this analysis (and never claims to). What he does do however is to consider whether the relatively small machinery of government in the UK (compared to the US, for example) can in fact be extremely helpful. He argues that the relatively small scale of Downing Street can be an asset to government:

” …the small scale of operations at No.10 was invaluable to its operation, ensuring that everyone was kept in the loop and encouraging strong personal relations with staff rather than anonymity and bureaucracy.”

The author does recognise that the Cabinet Office, located directly next to Number 10, is an extension of the No.10 machine with the Cabinet Secretary being informally labelled as the “Prime Minister’s Permanent Secretary”.

Yet, the author recognises that the role of the Cabinet Office (which is dominated by Civil Servants rather than Special Advisers) is very much at the discretion of the Prime Minister. The author explains that the famous episode of Yes Prime Minister where Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Cabinet Secretary, gets his key removed may be closer to truth than fiction.

” With the Principal Private Secretary holding the key to the interconnecting door, and the Prime Minister’s diary carefully guarded, Bernard Donogughue observed an entertaining yet subtle power play between the two senior officials…”

One of the arguable strengths of the executive branch of the UK is the permanency of the civil service. Upon a change of government the vast majority of the government machinery stays in place and this provides a wealth of ‘institutional memory’ that the Prime Minister and their government can call upon. However, Prime Ministers have often been suspicious of the civil service, feeling they are working against them rather than with them. One of the key things that the book makes clear is that it is very much down to the Prime Minister how the political machine at Downing Street operates. The author calls the Prime Minister ‘the engine, with the rest of No.10 built around them’. Despite this seeming latitude that the Prime Minister has, however, the age and idiosyncrasies of the building mean that each Prime Minister faces a tension between precedent and practicality. As the author consistently points out, Downing Street would not be designed as it is today if it were being designed for the purpose in which it is used. It is retained because of the history of the building, so Prime Ministers have far from blank canvas to work with.

Traditionally, it has been the Private Office of Civil Servants who dominate the flow of information to No.10. They are the ‘gatekeepers’ deciding what goes in the Prime Minister’s red box, and perhaps how near the top of the red box it is. One of the more interesting aspects that could have been considered in the book is the impact that modern communication methods have had on the Private Office. Is it now harder for them to carry out their gate-keeping role when every Special Adviser is a simply an email away from the Prime Minister?

One of the things considered by the book is the importance of the proximity to the Prime Minister as a way to guarantee ones powers. Reading it, I was reminded of the hilarious clip in Yes Prime Minister where his political secretary persuades the Prime Minister that she must be situated opposite the men’s loo! The book even implies this may be based on the real-life experiences of Marcia Falkender, Wilson’s Special Advisor.

The author quotes Bernard Donoghue in explaining the importance of location:

‘ Exercising influence on the Prime Minister in Downing Street requires above all access to his ear, and, to a lesser extent, capacity to determine who else has access to him. Th press of claimants to his ear is enormous. It has to be sifted and, in man cases, resisted. Those who have access have potential influence of the levers of power’

However, the author also considers whether it is the flow of information, rather than physical proximity, that is most important in ensuring influence. Again, this is where a consideration of modern administrations may have bern particularly enlightening.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the consideration of the different working habits of different Prime Ministers. Some Prime Ministers, like Thatcher, preferred to work in the private study, away from the hustle and bustle. Others, like her predecessor James Callaghan, preferred to base themselves in the Cabinet Room with their private secretaries just outside the door. It is clear that each Prime Minister is inherently different in their approach.

Harold Wilson made good use of his Special Advisers alongside the Civil Service.

The author talks about Harold Wilson’s ‘Kitchen Cabinets’ as method of government. This is a clear forerunner of ‘Sofa Government’ under Blair, where the Prime Minister could meet with Ministers and Advisers without the constraints of civil service protocol. The author is keen to point out that every Prime Minister employs some form of ‘inner circle’ that is entirely of their own choosing and that perhaps people are too quick to place a PM in the Cabinet Government or Presidential Government camp – believing that all Prime Ministers appear somewhere along this scale.

The final chapters of the book deal with 10 and 11 Downing Street as a living space and a place for hosting functions for domestic and foreign guests. It is packed full of interesting anecdotes and comparisons of how different Prime Ministers sought to express their way of governing through furnishings are architecture. The end of the book, however, becomes less useful as political study and most of an interest read.

This is a book that is definitely worth reading, either academically or for pleasure. However, it may now be best to wait for the paperback version that will include updates on the New Labour era.

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