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Yes, Prime Minister: How many PPSs does a premier need?

4 min read

Influencer or ‘bag-carrier’? Philip Cowley unpicks the unpaid job of the prime minister’s parliamentary private secretary

There are, to borrow a distinction used by Donald Searing in his magisterial work on the Commons, Westminster’s World, essentially two types of parliamentary private secretary (PPS): the apprentice and the auxiliary. 

Apprentices are bright young things on the up, their time as a PPS serving as a stepping-stone to higher office – or in the case of Lord Dunglass (or Sir Alec Douglas-Home, as he became better known), who served as PPS to Neville Chamberlain, the highest office. 

Auxiliaries, by contrast, aren’t going anywhere – except back to the back benches eventually – but they are loyal spear carriers. 

Typologies like this are rarely precise, although if you look at those who have served as PPS to the prime minister, they do mostly fall into one or other of these two groups. 

Thatcher was prime minister for 11 years, and only needed five in total. Blair held the office for a decade, and only got through four

Apprentices tend to be younger (since 1945, they have been on average 41 when appointed to the position), with relatively limited parliamentary experience (with, again since 1945, an average of just four years in the Commons). Indeed, some have almost no experience. Geoffrey de Freitas became Clement Attlee’s PPS in August 1945, having been elected to the Commons only that July. 

By contrast, auxiliaries are older (54 on average), and with an average of 10 years’ experience. Auxiliaries also stay in post for slightly longer – about two and a half years on average – compared to around 18 months for apprentices.

Prior experience isn’t a predictor of success. Ian Gow is often seen as the model PM’s PPS, at least to those of us of a certain vintage. Yet he had been in Parliament for a mere five years when he became Margaret Thatcher’s PPS. By contrast, Peter Morrison, widely considered to be her worst, had knocked around for 16 years before taking up the post. 

Over time, the nature of the role has changed – with the responsibilities waxing and waning – but, as one study of the role noted, it has tended to change from PM to PM, and from PPS to PPS, depending on the circumstances and the individuals concerned, rather than there being any obvious trend across time. 

Some have been significant figures, listened to by the PM and able to speak truth to power; others have been bag-carriers and door openers.

There have, however, been two obvious developments over the last decade. 

The first is in the type of person appointed. Between 1945 and 2010, there was an almost perfect split between apprentices and auxiliaries, 15 of each, along with three who didn’t fit either category, by virtue of having held senior ministerial office previously. 

Since 2010, though, almost all those who have become the prime minister’s PPS could be classified as apprentices, often with very little parliamentary experience.  

The second is the increase in their number. Boris Johnson is not the first PM to think he needs more than one PPS: Harold Wilson, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Theresa May all had two (albeit briefly in most cases).

Towards the end of his premiership, John Major experimented with a PPS in the Lords in tandem with one in the Commons, while David Cameron employed John Hayes in a quasi-PPS role in addition to having a formal PPS. 

Ramsay MacDonald had pairs of PPSs consistently: two Labour MPs from 1929 until 1931, after which a Conservative MP served alongside one National Labour MP. Stanley Baldwin had two at one point, when his incumbent required medical treatment and a long convalescence.

Johnson is, however, the first prime minister to think he needs three simultaneously. Thatcher was prime minister for 11 years, and only needed five in total. Blair held the office for a decade, and only got through four. 

In less than three years, some eight individuals have served as Johnson’s PPS. That is more than any prime minister since the post was first created. It is not immediately obvious it has helped him much. 

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London

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