Historical Notes: Cronyism at No 10 and the Garden Room Girls
Thursday 18 November 1999
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)
TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success
tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Which country would be hardest to invade?
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 Royal baby girl born: Duchess of Cambridge's second child will be a princess thanks to Queen
- 4 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
- 5 Teen suffers embarrassing wardrobe malfunction in front of deputy PM
Daredevil, Netflix, TV review: Marvel wins first fight in bid for television domination with Charlie Cox's superhero vigilante
London art exhibition features portrait of Iraqi migrant shot dead in Iraq after being refused UK asylum
Grace Dent on TV: Peter Kay's Car Share made me genuinely LOL
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
Indonesia executions live: 'Hysterical' families heard prisoners being shot dead by firing squad
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds