Lots of the mark schemes refer to some sort of Downing Street machine so let’s untangle that and see what this buzz phrase actually means. The Downing Street machine is used as a point to argue that the power of the cabinet as the executive body in the UK has decreased.
Since Blair, the ‘Downing Street machine’ has expanded in number and responsibility, the phrase primarily covers special advisors and the policy unit.
Firstly we can look at special advisors, under Blair in the year 2004/5 there were 84 special advisors, under Brown 78 and under Cameron 83 (previously 66 in 2010) and most notably Andy Coulson who recently resigned but when in his role of Director of Communications, earned more than Nick Clegg. This shows a growth in the bypassing of the cabinet when it comes to policy creation.
Secondly we can see how the No 10 Policy Unit has been focused on recently, the unit was initially set up by Wilson in 1974 and grew massively under Blair and has further increased under Cameron. This has led to Conservative MPs clamouring for a shake-up of the Downing Street machine to enable David Cameron to ‘get a grip’ after two months of mistakes and disastrous headlines according to an article in the Independent. The main criticism of the policy unit under Cameron is that it is flooded with civil servants who lack political nous or understanding of how their policy decisions will play out politically across the country.
The policy unit not only is harming the role of the cabinet but the credibility of Cameron, it makes the prime minister seem adrift and fuels critics’ complaints about an absence of strong leadership and a sense of direction.
Mark Pritchard, secretary of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, said yesterday: “As we move into a new parliamentary session, No 10 appears to want to wound or neutralise all who might speak truth to power. This is dangerous and will ultimately be politically counter-productive.”
Cameron also abolished the strategy unit as part of his pledge to cut the number of party political staff associated with ‘spin’ amongst the general public. However this can be seen as a superficial move as most of the staff were reallocated around the cabinet offices and the number of special advisors Cameron has is approaching Blair’s number. He has also increased reliance on the civil service. Both are ways in which the cabinet system is bypassed or undermined.