When it comes to the transfer of power, the British political system is lightning fast. You must immediately move from the startup mentality of campaigning to the awesome responsibility of governing. Whether coming out of a leadership contest or a General Election, there is no transition period.
Nothing can quite prepare any incoming Downing Street team for this, and Boris Johnson’s will have to work harder than most.
Their leader is a born communicator with an instinctive feel for the public mood, but those who have worked with him will attest that he prefers a detail-light approach, alongside a tendency to avoid difficult conversations.
In an institution like Number 10 – which is supervisory in nature rather than delivery-focused – this is a recipe for inertia at best and chaos at worst.
Given the deadline to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October, deal or no deal, team Johnson does not have the luxury of time to feel its way through the obstacles. The first few days in Downing Street will be critical.
Having worked as a special adviser in Number 10 for his two immediate predecessors, I would recommend a few core priorities in the immediate term for team Johnson.
First, prioritise the decisions that you need to take as special advisers.
Civil servants in the building will be looking for steers on every call under the sun. But as his political team, your immediate responsibility is to find a way through the Brexit paralysis.
To do that, you must make two early decisions in private and plot a way forward from there. What is your preferred Brexit outcome: leaving the EU without a deal, or performing political surgery on the current withdrawal agreement? And what is your mechanism to achieve that outcome – given that the numbers in parliament may prove impossible to surmount?
Second, put some rocket boosters under the government comms team.
Number 10 needs to update its comms. Currently, it doesn’t reflect how the communications landscape has changed in the past decade, from top-down disciplined packages to a constant conversation on social media, where authenticity and lightning speed are prized. Morning broadcast rounds and ministerial op-eds have their place, but should be less central.
Third, delegate most domestic policy decisions to the cabinet. You will not have the headspace, time or parliamentary numbers to coordinate a coherent domestic agenda at the start. So outsource the bulk – but hog a handful of direction-setting announcements that don’t require legislation.
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This may lead to a bit of chaos, as the left hand won’t know what the right hand is doing. But in the short term, this is preferable to an unfocused position on Brexit and spreading yourself too thin. With one eye on a General Election ahead, the focus of Number 10’s domestic policy unit should be on developing a strategic and thoughtful position for that.
Finally, don’t forget about party headquarters given that there may be a General Election around the corner.
Most decision trees for the next few months lead to a clarifying moment with the British people. A second referendum is not impossible, but a General Election is more likely.
Winning elections takes a lot of effort and preparation. So it is important that a campaign director is installed at Conservative Campaign HQ, closely integrated with Number 10.
All that is left to say is: good luck. Working in Downing Street is an experience like no other. It is immensely rewarding, for all the harsh contentions on other parts of your life.
Given the stakes of what is ahead, though, it is critical to take some early decisions to succeed on your own terms. Do these, and you might just prove the pundits wrong.