FOIMan recounts his own experiences of working for the likely new Prime Minister.
So Boris Johnson has been elected leader of the Conservative Party and, as a result, will (probably) become Prime Minister. What do civil servants in Whitehall have in store for them?
I have some insight, because in 2008, when Boris was elected Mayor of London, I was working in City Hall as the Greater London Authority’s (GLA’s) Freedom of Information and Records Manager.
The 2008 election was a close-run thing and allied to that, Ken Livingstone had been the first Mayor of London. It was hard to imagine anyone else being Mayor. So in the face of polling to the contrary, I think most staff at City Hall (and most Londoners) expected Ken to receive a scare but to scrape home, and life would continue much the same as before. Not that all staff would necessarily have seen that as a good thing: there was a feeling that change was overdue. It wasn’t always a pleasant experience working in Ken’s City Hall at that time.
As records manager I had assumed responsibility for the creation of a historical archive. The Act of Parliament establishing the GLA had been silent on the need for this, and in an organisation only 8 years old, nobody else had given it much thought. In addition, since everybody had assumed Ken was Mayor for life, there didn’t seem to be well-developed transition arrangements. In the civil service there are clear rules around what happens when a new administration takes power. They are not permitted to see certain records created by their predecessors. In 2010 and 2015, the unusual circumstance of coalition government reportedly complicated matters, but nonetheless there were principles and procedures to follow. My recollection is that this was not the case in 2008 in City Hall. The sense – from my perspective at least – was that we were making it up as we went along.
A few weeks before polling day, my colleagues in Facilities Management had told me that in the event of Boris winning the election, I would need to come into City Hall on the Saturday after the result was announced and remove any records from the Mayor’s Office (both the Mayor’s actual office and the wider department that supported it). This was the extent of transition planning in regards to records of the Mayoralty, and it didn’t extend to provision of facilities to house removed records. I was told that I’d have to find a way to remove the physical records to off-site storage. That this was impractical (if not actually impossible) didn’t appear to sway anyone’s thinking – they had, in their minds, other, more important, fish to fry.
The election took place on Thursday 1 May 2008, but the results weren’t announced until late on Friday, possibly even after midnight (so early on Saturday). I watched the results announced over a pint in a local Wetherspoons pub with a colleague who lived near me. And headed home immediately so I could get at least some sleep.
The story of what happened that bright sunny morning when I arrived at City Hall is for another time. Suffice it to say that it’s a good one. My memory is of an eerie silence throughout the building, but since it wasn’t usual for me to be there on a Saturday, that could have been normal.
Eventually (after the most embarrassing, if interesting, hour or so of my professional life) my Facilities colleagues saw both sense and reality and provided staff and crates to help remove records from the Mayor’s Offices. There were stories at the time of City Hall shredders going like the clappers. I can’t say whether political advisers were doing this, and our attempts to collect and manage digital records were at an early stage, but certainly all the physical files from the Mayor and his Chief of Staff’s offices were crated up and moved to a locked meeting room a few floors below. My colleague and I spent the next three weeks carrying out rough and ready appraisal and listing of those records before they were transferred to the London Metropolitan Archives. Unless a decision was subsequently taken to remove them (the GLA had to pay for the LMA to preserve them so there is a risk that someone in City Hall at some point will have cut the purse strings), there they still reside waiting for future historians to explore.
Back to that Saturday. As we were clearing the last items from the Mayor’s inner sanctum, an announcement sounded across the building that the newly elected Mayor would address staff and anyone else in the building. Any staff in the building were urged to go to London’s Living Room, the space at the top of City Hall that is used for assemblies of the great and good (and the occasional staff party).
I sat down on one of the few empty seats in the room. The lady I was sat next to asked me where I’d been campaigning. I looked around the room. It was packed with cheerful Boris supporters, whilst a sprinkling of City Hall staff, many looking pensive, stood around the fringe. My memory is that the Chief Executive, Anthony Meyer, introduced the new Mayor of London. There were wild cheers. I felt nervous as not all City Hall staff would have been happy about the situation. Some jobs were on the line. But if I looked too unenthused, how would that be seen? Should I stand for the impromptu standing ovation he received? If I stay seated will it be noted? It was an awkward moment.
Then Boris took to the podium, tripping over the base as he did so. Cue more cheers from his many supporters in the room. This may be my perception since, but I remember being suspicious as to how accidental his trip was. I can’t recall his actual words but it was much as you’d expect if you’ve ever seen Boris give a speech.
The Saturday and the following week have become confused in my memory. I remember walking through the building on either that Saturday or the following Tuesday when we returned (it was a bank holiday weekend). There were men and women in suits seemingly positioned at regular intervals throughout the office areas on each floor. It felt like an occupying army.
In that first week (probably the Tuesday), there was an all staff meeting in the Assembly Chamber where Boris was officially introduced to us by his acting Chief of Staff, a certain Nick Boles (who I always saw as Boris’s Conservative Central Office handler, intended to keep him under some semblance of control). Later Boris toured the building, shaking hands with every member of staff he met (including me and my colleagues), and deploying the famous Boris charm. This went down well with many of us, since Ken had become increasingly distant and remote in the last few years of his Mayoralty.
There was mutual suspicion. I recall having a drink in a pub with a friend and discovering that the couple of people at the next table were part of the new team. We got chatting and they admitted there was a lot of suspicion of City Hall staff – specifically that they were all pro-Ken and resistant to any change. We actually sought to reassure them by saying that most staff were just there to do their job and in some cases welcomed the change. After all, morale in City Hall after months of Ken in his bunker had not exactly been high before the election.
Then though, the changes began. They did not appear always well-informed. I was based in the GLA’s research library, which provided much the same function to the Mayor and Assembly Members as the House of Commons and House of Lords Libraries provide to MPs and Peers. The department was clearly square in the sights of those who Boris charged with trying to reduce staff numbers at City Hall (something he had promised in his manifesto). They seemed determined to dramatically cut the service, and my colleagues were not encouraged in early meetings by the use of phrases like ‘why do we need a library when we’ve got Google?’. Boris’s City Hall had clearly had enough of experts. Part of the library’s role was to order newspapers both for reference in the library and for delivery to public relations and political offices. An early battle was over our purchasing of The Morning Star newspaper. We were ordered not to procure it any longer. Arguably, it was easy to comply with this missive (whatever our views) in relation to the Library’s own copy. But Labour Assembly Members weren’t particularly impressed at having their reading censored by the Mayor. So the research library found itself stuck in the middle of a battle over freedom of speech. It was not a comfortable position for my colleagues to be in. Eventually the library staffing was considerably reduced and is virtually non-existent now. Research services as required are bought in. Whether this leaves the Mayor or Assembly Members sufficiently informed is another matter.
There were other changes. The Chief Executive was seemingly forced out, and a new (more highly paid) one brought in. Eventually the new Chief Executive abolished his own role to save money, arguably leaving the staff he was supposed to be leading even more exposed to the whims of the Mayor.
The new Mayor was a fan of eye-catching if meaningless changes. During the campaign, Boris had criticised ‘Ken’s cronies’ – his ‘unaccountable’ special advisers. When elected, Boris – as he was allowed to do under the GLA Act – appointed his own political advisers. But now many of them were to be ‘Deputy Mayors’. Technically there is only one Deputy Mayor allowed under the GLA Act, and they are supposed to be an elected Assembly Member. Suddenly Boris’s SPADs could be Deputy Mayors. The ‘statutory’ Deputy Mayor was effectively sidelined. It was a gimmick, but it set the tone: the people with the real power were Boris’s ‘cronies’. He just did it with more bravado than Ken ever had.
I continued to manage FOI. I had been optimistic when Boris was elected as his manifesto had shouted loudly about the importance of transparency. Spending was to be published monthly. But as with David Cameron a few years later Boris’s administration was only interested in pro-active transparency of their choosing. And despite my best efforts, it proved impossible to get involved in discussions about how to improve openness and develop an open data programme. They had their own agenda and would achieve it through their own means. When it came to FOI, whilst I don’t recall overall performance suffering considerably aside from an initial dip caused by the disruption of a new Mayoralty, the job became considerably harder. I had to be even more persistent than I’d had to be with Ken’s Mayor’s Office. And they weren’t interested – in fact I would go as far as to say that they were often actively hostile. One of Boris’s senior appointees once told me that they were going to become an MP and make sure FOI was abolished. They weren’t joking on either point (though they have so far failed on both).
The key difference between Ken’s Mayoralty and Boris’s as I saw it was that Ken’s advisers were often pretty unpleasant to deal with. But ultimately they would follow advice most of the time, especially if the law required something to happen. Boris’s leadership team were initially charming. All smiles, handshakes and ‘come and take a seat’. But once they decided you weren’t useful to them, or said inconvenient things – they became utterly ruthless. I’ve written a little about this previously, and it is my overall perception of that time: Boris’s team were nicer to your face but would stab you in the back (or front for that matter) without hesitation if it suited them.
I didn’t have much to do with Boris directly, aside from seeing him appear in the cafe wearing his cycle helmet and a ruck sack post cycle ride into work. I heard stories about him larking about in formal meetings, making staff uncomfortable and visitors uneasy or amused depending on their attitude. But I didn’t see any of that myself.
I didn’t stay in Boris’s City Hall for too long. Almost my entire department was made redundant within 18 months. My job was safe but there was a lack of clarity about where it was moving to. It was the most traumatic period of my professional career, watching friends lose their jobs. Perhaps the process was necessary to shake things up and save money (though watching Boris throw money at unbearably hot buses, unbuilt garden bridges, unused cable cars and unusable water cannon over the following years made it harder to see the point). But it was horrible to go through and I chose to move on around the same time as many of my colleagues departed.
Does my experience tell us anything about a Boris premiership? Impossible to be sure, but I think we can expect gimmicky gestures; reliance on a trusted caste of SPADs behind and perhaps in front of the scenes; ruthlessness; implementation of the leader’s agenda often against the advice of officials; and many twists and turns. Good luck my civil service friends. You’ll need it I suspect.