FP Explainer

How Did the Brits Kick Gordon Brown Out So Fast?

By having a powerful civil service.

BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

Gordon Brown departed London’s Buckingham Palace Tuesday evening at 7:45 p.m., having formally submitted his resignation as Britain’s prime minister only minutes before. At 8:35 pm, Conservative Party leader David Cameron was cruising in his silver Jaguar to 10 Downing St., having already assumed Britain’s highest political office. In contrast, U.S. President Barack Obama’s transition period lasted about two and a half months, from his election on Nov. 4, 2008, until his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009. How do the Brits do it so fast?

By relying on a powerful and apolitical permanent bureaucracy. Unlike in the American political system, Her Majesty’s civil service is entrusted with substantial responsibilities for implementing the agenda of the party in power. And because the new British prime minister appoints only a very small group of people in the upper echelons of government, the transition can be accomplished speedily.

In the run-up to an election, the bureaucracy goes into what’s informally known as "purdah" mode, when it ceases initiating controversial new initiatives that could open it up to charges of bias. It also scours the major parties’ manifestos and confers with opposition politicians to gain a sense of their priorities. Armed with this information, the civil service draws up an agenda that can be implemented as soon as the new prime minister crosses 10 Downing St.’s threshold.

Britain has no equivalent to the grueling U.S. confirmation system for high-ranking government officials, which also speeds up the process. Cameron may suffer negative political consequences for appointing an unpopular minister, but he has the authority to choose whomever he desires. The British tradition of shadow governments also removes much of the suspense from internal party wrangling over key ministerial positions.

Even Britain’s ceremonial procedures happen at warp speed. Right after Queen Elizabeth II accepted Brown’s resignation, she summoned Cameron and his wife for the official "kissing of hands" ceremony. (The would-be prime minister is not actually expected to pucker up, but simply to accept her offer to form a government. Tony Blair famously botched his ceremony, stumbling over the carpet and "warmly embracing" Queen Elizabeth’s hand, according to his wife Cherie.)

Barely an hour later, MP William Hague was tapped as Cameron’s foreign secretary. The other top officials in his government are already in place, and the appointment of junior ministers will be completed in the next few days. That said, the transition process for this government, the first coalition government since Winston Churchill’s war cabinet during World War II, has been slightly more complicated than usual. In addition to hashing out agreements on a range of substantive issues, the two new ruling parties also agreed on a division of ministries, with the Liberal Democrats winning appointments to five cabinet posts, including the appointment of their leader, Nick Clegg, as deputy prime minister.

By Wednesday, the website of the prime minister’s office was already featuring the smiling faces of Cameron and Clegg. The Department for International Development updated its site to reflect the new government’s agenda — removing its potentially controversial description of "how we fight poverty" until the new government weighs in. Even Brown’s wife Sarah got into the mood, changing her Twitter name today from SarahBrown10 to SarahBrownUK.

Meanwhile, moving vans were on hand to remove Brown’s personal property, as well as his official papers, which will be kept under the watch of the civil service. Three hours after leaving Buckingham Palace, Brown was back in his home in North Queensferry, Scotland, which he will now represent as a lowly member of Parliament.

Brown and Blair actually chose to live next door at 11 Downing St., in the larger apartment above the office of the chancellor of the exchequer, to make room for their young families. The Camerons are expected to do the same. The residence at No. 10 only includes one bedroom and lacks a full kitchen; John Major reconciled himself to microwaving readymade meals bought by his wife, Norma, when he stayed there.

Other former prime ministers have not been so fortunate. When Britain’s 1974 election removed the Conservatives from power, outgoing Prime Minister Edward Heath found himself homeless. He stayed at the flat of a friend in central London until he arranged for more permanent housing.

Thanks to Martin Longden at the British embassy in Washington D.C. and David Steven, a non-resident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.

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