Historical Notes: Cronyism at No 10 and the Garden Room Girls

A PRIME minister needs help. The volume of political pressures and media demands increasingly press on No 10. In 1970 Ted Heath was receiving an average of 300 letters a week. Tony Blair receives 7,500.

In the 1870s, one of Gladstone's private secretaries, William Gurdon, produced a form letter for answering various types of frequent enquiry. His rules were recorded in the "Book of Knowledge" which was updated by Gladstone's later private secretaries.

By the beginning of this century, Salisbury and Balfour could still read and reply personally to a good part of the correspondence which came into the office each day. The prime minister then had three private secretaries who effectively maintained links with Parliament, the media, Cabinet and the Palace.

In 1970 Ted Heath's support was still in single figures and No 10 was as much a home as an office. Heath's political secretary, a young Douglas Hurd, commented, "It is hard to imagine anyone governing anything substantial from No 10." Tony Blair today is backed by nearly 40 staff who work on party policy and media relations on his behalf.

Some of Blair's predecessors fought to strengthen their support. Lloyd George in 1916 established a Garden Suburb (a forerunner of today's Policy Unit), and a Cabinet Office, to systematise Cabinet's work, as well as recruiting a number of secretaries to do the typing. The latter were situated in two basement rooms facing the garden and were known as the Garden Room Girls. Lloyd George's neglect of the Cabinet and House of Commons, and his reputation as a wrecker of the Liberal Party, meant that his more powerful office was condemned as a form of presidentialism. When he fell from office in 1922, the Garden Suburb was abolished and the Cabinet Office trimmed back.

In 1964 Harold Wilson brought in a handful of political appointees, including the redoubtable Marcia Williams. They were not made welcome and 30 years later retired civil servants still shudder when they recall working in No 10 in the late 1960s. Having formalised the office of political secretary for Mrs Williams in 1964 Wilson innovated again in 1974, creating the Policy Unit which still stands today.

The first head of Mrs Thatcher's Policy Unit, Sir John Hoskyns, was also given a frosty reception by officials in No 10. The strong opposition she faced from the Foreign Office and the rest of Whitehall when she appointed her own foreign policy adviser in 1982 (Sir Anthony Parsons) helped to dissuade Mrs Thatcher from setting up a Prime Minister's Department, absorbing members of Policy Unit, Cabinet Office and Central Policy Review Staff. The later indiscretions of her economic adviser Sir Alan Walters exacerbated differences between herself and her Chancellor Nigel Lawson and led to the latter's resignation.

Tony Blair is not the first prime minister to be accused of cronyism, or having people around with whom he feels comfortable. Gladstone and Salisbury relied on relations to help them in No 10. Asquith's principal private secretary became his son-in-law and Churchill had his son-in-law, Christopher Soames, as his parliamentary private secretary. Lloyd George was surrounded by his so-called Taffia and his mistress Frances Stevenson.

Over the century the Prime Minister's Office has become larger and more differentiated. The dividing line between party-political and civil-service activity has became clearer where once it was opaque. Until Lloyd George it made little sense to talk of separate political and official institutions within No 10.

Because Whitehall dreads civil servants going native, it likes to move the private secretaries out of No 10 every three years or so. Mrs Thatcher's breach of this convention, by keeping Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell with her to the end, only reinforced it in the eyes of Whitehall.

Dennis Kavanagh is co-author, with Anthony Seldon, of `The Powers Behind the Prime Minister' (HarperCollins, pounds 19.99)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor