First Nick Timothy and now Fiona Hill are having their role as Theresa May’s Joint Chiefs of Staff examined. Not surprisingly there is intense media interest in the two people who are the Prime Minister’s closest assistants and advisors. Their every move and action is scrutinised for an indication one way or another of how their boss may be thinking. Being a close aide to a political leader is a difficult and onerous role. It provides huge opportunity and the chance to exert real influence on issues large and small. It also means you become a lightening rod for unhappiness with the leader. You are subjected to criticism that in reality is aimed at the Boss. The job requires a very thick skin.
The role of Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff is a recent invention and sits uncomfortably inside the Number 10 machine. The job is an American import. Harry Truman was the first US President to import a chief of staff into the White House. He came to office as a very inexperienced and hitherto low profile politician, despite having been a US Senator and serving briefly as Franklin Roosevelt’s third Vice President before assuming the Oval Office. But it was Former General Dwight Eisenhower who really embedded the role as a permanent feature, and every US President has followed the example.
In Britain, it was Tony Blair in 1997 who created the first No 10 Chief of Staff. He did so because he had contempt for the traditional way Number 10 functioned, and never having held ministerial office of any kind before becoming Prime Minister he had no idea how government really worked. Before Mr Blair a Prime Minister would have a Civil Service Principal Private Secretary and a party Political Secretary. These two roles would have worked together to provide the necessary support.
New Labour’s Jonathan Powell, along with Communications Director Alistair Campbell, were given exceptional powers over the civil service by Tony Blair. He did this through Orders in Council – using, please note, the Royal Prerogative which is the current subject of the Article 50 case before the Supreme Court. This enabled Powell to have a unique power over civil servants. As is demonstrated in Anthony Seldon’s new book The Civil Service 1916-2016, and in various interviews with the Cabinet Secretaries who served Mr Blair as Prime Minister, the innovation of this powerful new office sat very uncomfortably with the Number 10 machine as well as with the Labour Party. It made for bad government and poor policy making. However, talking to Jonathan Powell was as good as talking to Mr Blair himself. Powell was the focus of much criticism, but remained an indispensable and absolutely loyal aide to Mr Blair throughout his Premiership.
During Gordon Brown’s peripheral and brief time at No 10 three different people did the job in the just under two and a half years he was in office – two civil servants and one political advisor. All three bore the brunt of the turmoil that characterised that period. Of the two officials both went on to bigger and better things. One is the current Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, the other currently leads the Treasury. The political advisor did not stay long in No 10 and soon went off to the Lords.
On coming to office David Cameron unwisely retained the role but did not grant the same powers to his Chief of Staff, Edward Llewellyn. Llewellyn was discreet and loyal. To his credit, and entirely characteristically, he has remained so since leaving office. He frequently acted a lightening rod for criticism of David Cameron, the decisions he made, and the way No 10 was run. He travelled frequently with Cameron and was nearly always at his side. He is one of David Cameron’s most loyal personal and political friends. His reward has been a peerage and being made the UK Ambassador to France. Like Powell he started with his chief in opposition and stayed with him until his last hour as Prime Minister.
Though carrying the same title, Jonathan Powell and Edward Llewellyn discharged their duties very differently. But their roles were essentially to do their bosses bidding, to plug the gaps and do the work that Tony Blair and David Cameron wanted done. Their job, which each did with absolute loyalty, was to provide a buffer when required, support when needed, and loyal friendship.
Theresa May has come into office at a very difficult time, unexpectedly and by the standards of these things swiftly. She had no period in opposition to prepare. Unlike Gordon Brown who spent his Chancellorship plotting to oust Tony Blair and to take over, Mrs May focussed on her job as Home Secretary. She has had to put together a team and take control of government very much on the move. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill have led that effort. With their strong and loyal support she has been able to assemble an effective team inside No 10 much more quickly than most would have thought possible.
All Prime Minister’s have close advisors and they need them. Often they provoke controversy – think of Brendan Bracken, Marcia Falkender, Charles Powell and Bernard Ingham. This is nothing new. Prime Ministers need strong, partisan, absolutely loyal advisors. Mrs May is right to stick by them – as they have always stuck by her.