No 10 pushes ahead with shake-up of Whitehall press offices

Heather Stewart
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA</span>
Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA

Downing Street is pressing ahead with a radical centralisation of communications that will hand unprecedented control to No 10 and could lead to hundreds of job losses.

Whitehall departments were given a deadline of Thursday to submit details of their communications operations to Alex Aiken, the senior civil servant overseeing the drastic shake-up, the Guardian understands.

Boris Johnson’s team, many of whom are veterans of the tight-knit Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, regard Whitehall press offices as bloated and want to take a firmer grip over the messages emerging from government.

They have set an informal ceiling of 30 press officers in each Whitehall department. Some departments currently have well over 100.

Unions are holding regular meetings with Aiken to discuss the plans and have vowed to resist what they see as an arbitrary cap on numbers, and asked for assurances there will not be compulsory redundancies.

They estimate that 4,500 communications staff across government could be affected by the changes, in which reporting lines will shift from individual departments to the centre.

Amy Leversidge, an assistant general secretary at the FDA union, said: “The way the centralisation of services was announced, in particular announcing the arbitrary figure of having a maximum of 30 staff per department before the Cabinet Office even started their audit exercise, has left staff feeling like decisions have already been made without their input or expertise.

“This feels utterly disheartening for staff, especially when they have been working round the clock on the government’s response to coronavirus.”

A grand former privy council room in 9 Downing Street is being refurbished to host televised press briefings from the autumn. A Downing Street source said the new studio would be “the best in the world”.

Downing Street has confirmed that Johnson’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, and his head of policy, Munira Mirza, are moving to offices in 70 Whitehall with key officials and advisers.

Related: MPs ask No 10 to clarify Dominic Cummings role in defence review

Cummings has long had a preoccupation with what he has called “the extremely hard process of rewiring government institutions which now seems impossible for insiders to focus on given their psychological/operational immersion in the hysteria of 24-hour rolling news and the constant crises generated by dysfunctional bureaucracies”.

The government has advertised for a £135,000-a-year data expert to set up a “skunkworks” that will sift and analyse data in an effort to improve decision-making.

The changes follow news that Mark Sedwill is to step down as cabinet secretary. Johnson has already seen some candidates for the job, the Guardian understands. It was only advertised internally and is expected to go to a current or former permanent secretary.

Sedwill’s other role, as national security adviser, will be taken up by Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, David Frost. The former prime minister Theresa May strongly criticised the appointment, saying Frost had “no proven expertise”.