Sue Gray report: Johnson to set up Office of Prime Minister to bring order to chaos

Downing Street department headed by a permanent secretary would boast 400 officials

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is scheduled to travel to Ukraine after announcing the creation of the Office of the Prime Minister to address Downing Street problems. Photo: AP
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has attempted to address the Sue Gray report and his MPs’ misgivings over the chaotic running of Downing Street by announcing a new government department.

The Office of the Prime Minister is designed to ensure discipline at Number 10 and make sure government rules are observed.

That announcement on Monday, later followed by the prime minister saying that political strategist Sir Lynton Crosby would be given a role, will be welcomed by some Conservative MPs following publication of Ms Gray’s report into lockdown breaches.

Even before knowledge of coronavirus regulation-busting parties became public, some backbenchers felt that their views were being ignored and there was a lack of leadership from Number 10.

That was in part down to Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who wanted substantial reform along with the single-minded pursuit of a Brexit deal.

While Mr Cummings started a revolution, he failed to finish it and left Number 10 in late 2020.

When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, the administration became a war government where only a handful of people took decisions.

That was dangerous – MPs felt ignored and resentment brewed. Mr Johnson came close to losing his post after the Partygate revelations.

During a meeting with MPs after his statement on the Sue Gray report, Mr Johnson said there was a need to change the political operation.

“This was what won the room around,” one MP said. “As soon as he said that, the room was immediately on his side.”

It is understood that one role for the Office of the Prime Minister — or OPM — will be to initiate back bench MP “policy boards” to help connect with Downing Street.

A new whistle-blower office will allow Number 10 staff who have witnessed rule-breaking to report it without fear of reprisal.

The OPM could well become a powerful force, especially having its own permanent secretary. This will be a senior and experienced civil servant who will oversee the 400 officials and advisers who work at Numbers 9, 10 and 11 Downing Street.

That will be a challenging job as setting up a department inevitably leads to fighting with rival fiefdoms.

For now, Mr Johnson’s inner circle will be examining the CVs of permanent secretaries at other high profile departments such as the Home Office, Ministry of Defence, and Foreign Office.

An outsider would be unlikely, although a senior diplomat could be recalled for the task.

The return of Australian Mr Crosby has been welcomed by Conservative MPs who are worried about losing their seats at the next general election.

Mr Crosby, 65, successfully ran two London mayoral elections for Mr Johnson and the 2015 general election for the Conservatives. Many in politics regard him as a master electioneer.

“He has got a good strategic nose and a good sense of the direction of public opinion … to make sure we are nailing the priorities of the people,” Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told LBC Radio on Tuesday.

However, a sense of the size of the task to reform the prime minister’s headquarters lies in the decision by Mr Crosby not to take on the job full-time.

Updated: February 01, 2022, 4:32 PM