I’ve just written an introduction for a new book on Private Secretaries at No 10 Downing Street. Here is a shorter version.
‘I served three very different Prime Ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
The role of ‘Private Secretary for Foreign Affairs to the Prime Minister’ did not involve, as once translated to bewilderment, being the ‘intimate typist for the Prime Minister’s affairs overseas’. It was a combination of policy adviser, journalist, negotiator, bag carrier and relationship manager. Occasionally therapist, translator, recruitment consultant and even bodyguard, as when Mugabe emerged from a corner of a UN Summit to seek a handshake with Gordon Brown. I wrote speeches, dreamt up policies and procured ProPlus from President Obama. Sometimes I had to tell white lies, as when a Middle Eastern monarch asked what was written on all the ‘nice placards’ being waved at him in London by ‘friendly crowds’. The first voice I heard each morning, and the last each night, was the relentlessly cheerful No 10 switchboard.
Many things about the Private Secretary’s role are unchanged. They no longer cut the dash of the impresarios of Nico Henderson’s memoirs, but do have more influence than our age or rank would normally permit. They work in an atmosphere of creative tension with departments. Output matters more than process. They succeed if they master the art of using leverage. They inhabit the grey but productive area between communications, policy and diary. They don’t need to know everything about everything, but do need to know something about everything. They cannot be control freaks, but do have to create the illusion of freakish control. They rely as ever on the extraordinary good grace and professionalism of the duty clerks, switchboard operators and garden room staff who really run No 10. The thirty seconds walking to the front door with the PM are more important than the two hours rewriting his brief. They have to think fast, but never bluff. When the door is closed, they can be a licensed heretic, impertinent irritation, devil’s advocate. But not all the time, not in front of others, and never once the PM has reached a decision. If they appear too close to ‘The Boss’, they’ll be seen as a threat. If not close enough, as irrelevant. As ever, the PS must navigate between civil servants and special advisers, drawing the best from both while sidestepping unnecessary scraps. You need a thick skin – I still wake at night to recall one Prime Ministerial ticking off accompanied by the strains of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now, I’m Having Such a Good Time’ on a nearby loudspeaker. Just as the Private Secretaries of the past had to read Stalin or Kennedy, we have to know our Prime Ministers’ interlocutors inside out. Some were easier than others – the success of meetings with one leader could be judged by how often he tapped his crotch. We have to understand how to get the most out of our leaders, including by building in moments to watch the football or beat us at tennis.
Yet many aspects of our roles have changed dramatically. I worked for the last paper and pen PM, the first email PM, and the first iPad PM. When I started, we had to consider how policy would look on the Sky ticker. By the time I left, by how it would look on Twitter. We have had to become more media-savvy than our predecessors, always with a good story in the back pocket. Preparations for PMQs or press conferences have become the sweet spot in which to debate and hone policy. We have become more focused on ‘deliverables’ – announcements designed, more in hope than expectation, to prevent the media from writing negative alternatives. We have to think more about the visuals, as demonstrated by our often grim experiences over meetings with successive US Presidents – there were few I can recall where the media judged us on the substance of the exchange rather than the length of the press conference.
Even the physical nature of the job has changed. Traditionally, the smaller the desk and the closer to the throne, the better. But under Gordon Brown, we had a period in open-plan, a u-shape of desks around the Prime Minister. The Private Secretary now has a blackberry attached to his or her wrist – leading to a painful version of repetitive strain injury (or No10donitis). The pace of international diplomacy has quickened. Often at a ‘three-shirter’ EU budget discussion or climate change summit, I would long for the days when Churchill’s PS, Jock Colville, could write in his diary: ‘war declared, rode on Hampstead Heath for three hours’. We are probably more paranoid about leaks and inquires – the minute that looks brilliant and witty in the PM’s red box will seem reckless to a parliamentary committee armed with hindsight and media outrage. Recent inquiries have shown that no-one comes out with much credit when their real time communications are put under an intense spotlight. We’re more ‘The Thick of It’ than ‘Yes Prime Minister’.
In my experience, leaders arrive planning to delegate, but end up centralising. On issues of core national interest, they tend to make similar calls. The stereotypes are flawed: those seen as gunslingers were smarter; those seen as steely were more subtle; those seen as gloomy could be hilarious; and those seen as too relaxed were driven. Someone said that JFK inspired America, RFK challenged America, and Ted Kennedy changed America. The best leader has to do all three: set the vision, engage people to believe in it, and put systems in place to deliver it. Most master two out of three. Tactics often get in the way of strategy, but most calls are 51/49 and lonely. So all value judgement over intellect.
Few jobs in government are more gruelling than PS – during one demanding period, my wife interrupted a conference call between the Prime Minister and a head of state to inform us all of how fed up she was. But few can be as exciting, and such a privilege. They give you an extraordinary insight into moments of history, and the characters that shape them. I woke the Prime Minister to tell him of President Obama’s election. I was in the car with Gordon Brown as he left Chequers for the last time, and with David Cameron as he arrived there for the first time.
The Private Secretaries who are now best remembered are those who wrote most down. The code of omerta remains strong among most of us – the ‘Private’ remains more important than the ‘Secretary’. But as government evolves it is right to shine a light into the corridors in which the Private Secretary ducks, weaves and does the occasional bit of intimate typing.’