The two most important civil servants in No10 are the PM’s Official Spokesman and the PM’s Principal Private Secretary. One runs his press office; the other runs his private office. Put another way, one controls what the PM thinks, says and does publicly; the other controls his diary and the work he does behind closed doors.
If those two offices are not run fluently and coherently, Downing Street cannot function, and the PM cannot govern effectively. There are of course one or two other things and people which affect the successful functioning of the government, but unless you have excellent individuals in the roles of PMOS and PPS, the battle is already lost.
So even though the news has gone largely unreported, it’s hugely important that Jean-Christophe Gray – widely known as JC Gray* – has been appointed as the new PMOS, in which role he will give twice-daily official briefings to the Parliamentary press, speaking ex cathedra on behalf of David Cameron and the Government.
It’s an immensely tough role, in which you’re never more than one misplaced phrase or unintended admission away from causing a media storm. Too many of those and you won’t last long, but go in the other direction – know nothing, say nothing, refuse to confirm the truth or even answer your phone – and you will lose all respect and trust. That’s fine if you just want to get through each day, but not if you want to help the PM survive when he’s next at the epicentre of a shitquake.
JC will not be fazed by difficult days, having managed the Treasury press office during tough periods under Alistair Darling and George Osborne. But more importantly, he has two key characteristics that will stand him in good stead:
He’s got integrity. When he was working in Gordon Brown’s private office and I was the Treasury’s head of communications, JC told me that he’d struck up a friendship with a journalist and was planning to invite her round for dinner. Was this OK? When I next saw him, he looked like someone had shot his dog. How did the date go? “Well, it was going really well,” he said, “but then she started talking about the pressure she was under at work, having to find out what was happening with council tax revaluation, and asked whether that had crossed my desk…..So I asked her to leave.” You did what?! “Well I was very nice about it, but I said it was best we left it there.” I may be wrong, but that kind of reaction is not the mark of a man who would ever mislead a journalist or deny something he knew to be true.
He’s also a professional. He’ll get flustered on occasions but he’ll never shirk his job, let the pressures get to him, or be flippant about the power he holds. On the day of Budget 2011, I made my annual ‘mystery shopper’ call to the Treasury press office, and hit the jackpot, being referred to JC himself. Affecting a suitable accent, I said I was the beer correspondent for the Huddersfield Examiner, and was furious about the abolition of tax relief for Mathers’ Black Beer (a pre-cursor of the bigger and more damaging changes HMRC slipped past the keeper in Budget 2012). JC corpsed. I could hear him desperately stifling the giggles as I thundered on – with genuine conviction – about the impact on local brewing heritage. “Are ya laffin, lad?” I asked. He composed himself, and gave a beautifully-crafted and sensitively-phrased explanation for the change. Almost as impressive as his recovery and his answer was the fact that he handled the call himself; a less consummate professional would have thought it was beneath him, and referred it to HMRC.
But – as well-suited as JC may be for the role – there’s a more important issue to address about his appointment. It continues a remarkable recent hegemony over the PMOS and PPS roles by individuals who have graduated from senior roles either in the Chancellor’s private office or the Treasury press office, or in JC’s case, both.
The current PPS – appointed earlier this year – is Chris Martin, a former Treasury head of communications. For the previous 13 years, the role of PPS had been held by graduates of Ken Clarke’s or Gordon Brown’s Treasury private office: Jeremy Heywood (twice), Ivan Rogers, Tom Scholar and James Bowler. The exception in that period was Oliver Robbins, but he was as central to Gordon Brown’s Treasury operation as any of the others.
As for the PMOS, the hegemony is more short-lived but now seemingly entrenched. Since 2007, the role has gone from Michael ‘The Sheik’ Ellam to Steve ‘Jonatton Yeah?’ Field, both former Treasury heads of communication and masters of the PMOS art, and now to JC Gray. The exception in that period was Simon Lewis, a rare outsider, who served for less than a year at the tail-end of the Labour government.
There is one way to look at all this.
You could argue that, since the Treasury has traditionally had the pick of the best fast stream recruits to the Home Civil Service and the best of those will usually end up in the most important Treasury positions, then their further ascendance to the top jobs in No10 is simply a case of cream rising to the top.
You could also argue that there is no better training for those No10 jobs than their equivalent posts in the Treasury, and that the preference for Treasury types reflects the current centrality of the economy to No10’s work. Whereas with Ivan Rogers, Ollie Robbins and Jeremy Heywood, Tony Blair was poaching Gordon Brown’s talent, it is now a case of No10’s chief strategist, George Osborne, recommending people he knows are up to the job.
But there’s another way to look at it.
If, every time there’s a vacancy in the PMOS or PPS roles, No10 continues drawing on the same narrow field of Treasury candidates, all themselves drawing on similar working experiences, you do risk ending up with a certain homogeneity in the way that the jobs are approached.
And like all narrow gene pools, the effects are multiplied the longer the cycle is unbroken. Given that interviewers tend to select the candidate who most resembles themselves, the fact that most of the individuals I’ve mentioned recruited each other at various points reinforces that trend, as does the fact that they all came through the same brutal selection process to become fast stream civil servants in the first place.
Again, given that these individuals are generally the best and brightest Whitehall has to offer, you might argue this is no bad thing. And having myself benefited from this process, I’m hardly in a position to criticise it. However, like all the others, I’m white, male and heterosexual, with a degree from Oxbridge. When I was appointed as the Treasury’s head of communications in 2003, all seven people involved in my interview process (bar Edinburgh-educated Gordon) were the same.
The Treasury recently completed its 2012 recruitment process for new ‘policy advisers’, specifying the minimum requirement of a 2:1 degree. The blurb says: “We want to do everything we can to ensure that we reflect the society we serve”, but while the recruitment forms, tests and interviews will be daunting to many candidates, they’ll be routine to many others from entrance applications to grammar school, private school or Oxbridge.
The Treasury’s standard application form for more senior jobs contains a sequence of three sections for ‘Higher Education’, ‘Subject of Postgraduate Research (if any)’, and ‘Professional Qualifications’. These are not ‘mandatory fields’ but it would take a particularly confident soul to leave them blank and carry on in good heart with the rest of their application, and a particularly wise Treasury manager who would carry on reading it with an open mind.
None of this means the Treasury, and by extension No10, is necessarily recruiting the wrong people to the most important posts, but we do have to ask what they’re missing out on by effectively excluding the vast majority of the civil service, not to mention 99.99% of the entire working population, from the reckoning.
And that matters if you assume, as I do, that there are a huge number of highly intelligent, brilliantly creative, politically astute individuals in Britain, with the same integrity and professionalism as a JC Gray, who would never even get their foot in the Treasury’s door – let alone have the chance to rise to the most senior positions – because they did not go to University, or because they are unable to present themselves as a ‘Treasury type’ at interview.
I grew up with friends who started work in the City without A Levels or degrees in the 1990s; they would make brilliant Treasury advisers on finance or trade, but would never get a look in. I know journalists from my time in government whose only qualification is shorthand but would never have let the pasty tax into the Budget. And, during my period in the education and charity sectors, I’ve met exceptional people who absolutely should be advising on child welfare policy rather than some 21-year old graduate from Peterhouse.
Some of the most important work being done on politics at the moment is by Labour MPs Jon Trickett and Gloria De Piero (see here and here) and Lib Dem activist Louise Shaw (see here and here). From different perspectives, they’re all looking at what kind of people are attracted to a career in politics in the first place, which of them are able to get started, and how those with alternative backgrounds, family lives, emotional needs and income levels (or a simple lack of know-how or contacts) are put off or weeded out.
Jon Trickett has made the point that 91 per cent of those MPs returned at the 2010 election went to University, and of the 9 per cent who did not, we can also note that only the Tories’ Patrick McLoughlin and the excellent Grant Shapps now attend either the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet. Where is Labour’s next Alan Johnson or the Lib Dems’ next Paddy Ashdown? That is precisely what Jon, Gloria and Louise are looking to change, but it’s an uphill struggle.
By comparison, widening the field of civil servants we recruit to staff our government offices and fill the most important roles in the Treasury and No10 should not be so hard. It just requires the Jeremy Heywoods, Chris Martins and JC Grays of the world to recognise – as I have, with the benefit of some external perspective – that, when the time comes to find their own successors, they need to add some fresh blood to the family.
The Treasury’s ‘policy adviser’ recruitment blurb says: “HM Treasury believes a diverse workforce makes a positive impact on what we can achieve”. Right you are, chaps, let’s see you do something about it.
* = A now forgotten fact: JC Gray is only called JC Gray because of Gordon Brown’s total inability to say difficult names. He tried several times to get the hang of saying ‘Jean Christophe’ when barking out instructions to the new recruit in his private office, before the solution of using ‘JC’ was suggested to him instead. To avoid confusion, everyone else started referring to Jean Christophe as ‘JC’ as well, and that became his name. There but for the grace of God went we all. Shortly afterwards, another new recruit – the wonderful Rita Patel, now Mrs Phil French – joined the private office, and having been warned about JC’s experience, she was determined not to be similarly re-named. So when Gordon introduced her happily as ‘Ruth’ to a large gathering of external businesspeople on her first day in the job, she shouted at him: “It’s Rita, Chancellor, RITA!” I’d like to say that he coolly replied: “OK Rita, but it’s not Chancellor, it’s Gordon”, but I think he was too taken aback. He never got her name wrong again though.