Gus O'Donnell

By Lucas, George | New Statesman (1996), November 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

Gus O'Donnell


Lucas, George, New Statesman (1996)


Who but the most skilful mandarin could work for Lawson, Major and now Brown?

"It's that man again, it's that man again" - ITMA, BBC Radio, 1939-1949

In the midst of wartime grimness, the ITMA carnival was a much-needed antidote to Hitler-induced human tragedy. But ITMA characters occur in all eras, not least in the great travelling circus of British public life. Gus O'Donnell, just four years ago John Major's closest press officer, the messenger of both the ERM and back-to-basics, recently fully reinstalled at the nation's controls as in effect our chief Whitehall-bred economist, fits the bill more than ever. Amid the blitzkrieg-stricken dugouts of 1990s politics, O'Donnell, 46, seems to have remained cheerful and hit the jackpot. Again.

How can all this be? How can John Major's favourite bureaucrat be back at the centre of a Labour government? Not only is O'Donnell directing Treasury macro-economic policy - especially spending - but he then apparently skips nonchalantly across town to join the Bank of England's high priests to help set interest rates. That makes him, definitively, the only senior decisionmaker in the country with direct input on all areas of economic policy. O'Donnell, who was so often first into Major's flat each morning with the latest consignment of slings and arrows, is now suddenly pivotal for both the price of your house and the security of your job. When Major finally departed from No 10 to watch Surrey play cricket, one story is that he left Tony Blair a bottle of champagne on the desk. He also, indirectly, left him O'Donnell. Is O'Donnell, in cold war parlance, a Conservative sleeper? What on earth is going on?

The strong likelihood is that O'Donnell sleeps for no one. Rather, he acts for himself. The entire essence of the successful bureaucrat through the cons is precisely that: the object of the game is to face up to changing times without those changing times changing the bureaucrats themselves. One large reason for taking the job was always that you'd be there for ever. O'Donnell has succeeded in the most vital way possible. He has outlasted the flood.

Few dispute that he is a great guy. The personal compliments are duly legion. Jeffrey Archer described his style as "very warm". One leading lobby journalist called him "an excellent man"; a fellow economist called him "an unbelievably nice guy who was pretty universally liked". Another colleague termed him "great to work with." Above all, the feeling is that he is normal, one of us.

This ethic helps nowhere more than in modern-day Whitehall, where the image of gruesomely delightful senior officials seen on Yes Minister was largely out of date even on the series' first venture 20 years ago. It is certainly almost utterly extinct now. The lazy lunches in the Pall Mall clubs have almost completely gone, as have the shooting weekends in Scotland. Sherry sales are well down. The new Whitehall is an arena where John Major's spiritual children indeed prosper, a place where the academically bright from beyond the public school have their best shot at real power, a venue for advancement for a bureaucratic Mittelstand comprising folks who find their way around a website at least as adeptly as they navigate a wine list. They hail mainly from south London, from Dulwich, Vauxhall, Clapham South, swarming each morning through the grime-ingrained portals of the Northern Line or over Westminster Bridge to take their - often extraordinarily influential, but almost completely unmarked - place in national life.

Few represent them better than O'Donnell, a public servant who, colleagues say, has long been sublimely equipped to fit the shifting whims of masters as diverse, but equally admiring of him, as Nigel Lawson, John Major and Gordon Brown. Not only fully installed in Whitehall's south London tribal heartland, O'Donnell was born deep within it, going to school first in then in Vauxhall, before departing successively to the universities of Warwick and Oxford. …

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