UK to get fully fledged ‘Office of the Prime Minister’ in response to Sue Gray report as premier rejects calls to resign

By on 01/02/2022 | Updated on 01/02/2022
Prime minister Boris Johnson gives a press conference during the coronavirus crisis. Photo by Pippa Fowles, courtesy No.10 Downing Street via Flickr

The UK government will create an Office of the Prime Minister headed by a top tier civil servant after a report into a series of parties in 10 Downing Street which broke lockdown rules found “failures of leadership and judgment” at the centre of government.

A short update from the investigation into parties in government buildings that were held while the nation was subject to coronavirus restrictions on social events was published on Monday. A fuller update was not possible because 12 of the 16 gatherings investigated by senior civil servant Sue Gray are now subject to a police investigation.

However, the update concluded that “against the backdrop of the pandemic, when the government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behaviour surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify”, and found that “at least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time”.

The published document set out that there were “failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No.10 and the Cabinet Office at different times”, adding: “Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.

“There is significant learning to be drawn from these events which must be addressed immediately across government. This does not need to wait for the police investigations to be concluded.”

Among the conclusions, Gray highlighted that the size of the office around the prime minister in his residence of No.10 Downing Street had “steadily increased in recent years” and was now more akin to a small government department than purely a dedicated prime minister’s office.

However, the structures that support the smooth operation of Downing Street “have not evolved sufficiently to meet the demands of this expansion”, according to Gray. “The leadership structures are fragmented and complicated and this has sometimes led to the blurring of lines of accountability. Too much responsibility and expectation is placed on the senior official [the prime minister’s principle private secretary] whose principal function is the direct support of the prime minister. This should be addressed as a matter of priority.”

In his statement to MPs following the publication of the update, prime minister Boris Johnson apologised for “the things we simply did not get right and sorry for the way that this matter has been handled”. However, he continued to reject calls from opposition politicians to resign over the affair, having initially said that no parties took place and that coronavirus restrictions had been followed at all times.

He said that he would be making changes to the way Downing Street and the Cabinet Office – the UK’s central coordinating department that also supports the head of government – are run.

This will include creating an Office of the Prime Minister, with a permanent secretary, the top tier of UK civil servant, to lead it.

Johnson said that there would also be a review of the civil service and special adviser codes of conduct “to ensure they take account of Sue Gray’s recommendations but also to make sure those codes are properly enforced”.

He did not announce a review into the ministerial code, or indeed an investigation into whether his denials of the events highlighted in the Gray report were in line with the code. Under the rules, ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation.

Responding to the plans for an Office of the Prime Minister, Alex Thomas, a programme director at the Institute for Government think tank, said it would not address the problems highlighted by Gray.

“Johnson is focusing on one of the problems with No.10 – that its operation needs restructuring and that as it has got larger the responsibility on his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds is too great. But he is avoiding the other critique – of his leadership and approach to decision making,” he wrote in a blog.

“The last time Johnson came under heavy pressure from his party he removed his chief adviser Dominic Cummings and promised to reset his No.10 operation. Recent problems have reinforced the point that shifting personnel is no silver bullet. Neither the civil service grades of his team, nor the markers on an organisation chart matter as much as how the prime minister works with his No.10 and the signals that he sends.”

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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