Presidential transitions officially have about 75 days following an election to plan, laying the groundwork for the first 100 days and executing all the logistics involved in installing a new president. To transition leaders, this interval of time can seem depressingly short.
Now imagine you’re leading a transition in the United Kingdom, where 10 Downing Street changes hands practically overnight.
This is no exaggeration. Consider that parliamentary elections in the U.K. take place on Thursdays. Around lunchtime on Friday, the outgoing prime minister typically resigns. Within a few hours, their successor walks into 10 Downing Street after a visit with the Queen. By the evening, the new PM has usually announced who will occupy top posts — the chancellor of the exchequer, foreign secretary and home secretary — if not the entire cabinet. (Delaying these announcements, Margaret Thatcher wrote in her memoir, would be “taken as a sure sign of some sort of political crisis.”)
And thus the new government begins its work — less than 24 hours after polls close and less than six weeks after the election campaign begins. “There’s just enough time to have the [prime minister’s] sheets changed,” British political historian Anthony Seldon said in an interview.
This system might appeal to perennially exhausted U.S. voters, but as observers note, it is brutal for the people involved. On election night, the prime minister’s policy, communications and political staff anxiously watch returns to see if they should start packing up their desks. And the next day, those who ran 10 Downing Street just hours earlier end up leaving unceremoniously by the back door. One exception this summer was the beloved cat, Larry, who has stayed on at No. 10. (Have you seen his Twitter feed?)
The sudden move can be especially wrenching for the prime minister’s family.
In July, bright-blue moving vans were called last-minute to Downing Street after the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to abruptly resign.
Interested tabloids reported the movers brought 330 boxes, 30 rolls of tape and three rolls of bubble wrap to pack up the four-bedroom apartment over No. 11, where Cameron and wife Samantha lived with their three children. (Prime Minister Tony Blair and family had also lived in the No. 11 apartment, more spacious than the one in No. 10.) Florence Cameron, 6, had never lived outside 11 Downing Street. And to make matters worse, the family couldn’t return to their old house in Kensington because it was occupied by renters.
For these and other reasons — think of the roughly 4,000 appointments presidents prepare to make during the transition — it’s unlikely we’ll ever see U.S. governments make the switch on the U.K.’s timeline.
In fact, scholars have concluded there are some lessons to be learned from American efforts to professionalize the transition process.
In the U.K., for example, the powerful (and apolitical) civil service is charged with carrying out the prime minister’s agenda. But its leaders often feel they cannot openly plan for a possible transition without seeming to betray the current government; according to scholars, the meetings are carried out with a measure of subterfuge.
It’s a funny contrast when you think about it.
Here in Washington, despite the chaos of the 2016 presidential race, officials from the White House, the and the Trump and Clinton transition teams have met on multiple occasions to discuss post-election plans.
But when Whitehall eyes a possible change of government, two scholars concluded, “the aura of a Feydeau farce and the mysteries of a Le Carre thriller have never been far away.”