Cameron abandons hands-off approach to government

Prime Minister appoints nine new policy advisers, despite vow to end “control freakery” of Labour ye

Back in May 2009, David Cameron pledged an end to policies "dreamt up on the sofa at No 10 Downing Street", promising to limit the number of politically appointed special advisers and to end the "control freakery" that marked the Blair/Brown years.

Famous last words? Cameron has now appointed nine new policy advisers to help him keep a tighter grip on cabinet ministers as he abandons his hands-off approach to government.

The new team will be made up of six civil servants and three experts from the private sector. They will keep an eye on government departments in an attempt to head off disasters such as the proposed privatisation of Britain's forests before they hit the headlines.

It's a marked change of tack for the Prime Minister, who has proudly described himself as the "chairman" of the coalition and who, in the first nine months of governing, took a remarkably uninvolved approach.

However, aides now admit that ministers may have been given too much leeway to draw up and announce policies without No 10 knowing the full details. A series of embarrassing U-turns – on forests, free books for children and school sports budgets – compounded this.

Last month, Andrew Grice quoted an ally of Cameron's saying:

We need to stop things being announced before they have been road-tested. We need to spot the problems before proposals are in the public domain, not afterwards.

This new unit of policy advisers will aim to do just that. Technically, it will not breach Cameron's self-imposed limit on the number of special advisers, as they will be employed as civil servants (a loophole that has caught Cameron out before).

It completes a radical overhaul of the machinery of Downing Street. The BBC executive Craig Oliver has now taken over from Andy Coulson as director of communications. And Andrew Cooper, the Populus pollster, has started in the newly created role of strategy director, in which he will be responsible for giving the government's policies greater coherence.

The Times (£) reports the following appointments to the team:

  • Tim Luke: the former Lehman Brothers analyst is one of the three external appointments, and will cover enterprise, trade and technology.
  • The other two (as yet unnamed) will cover health, energy and the environment.
  • Paul Kirby: this former partner with the accountancy firm KPMG will be head of policy development. One of his main tasks will be ensuring that the government delivers on its commitments on public-service reform.
  • Kris Murrin: having worked for the Downing Street delivery unit under Tony Blair, and then on Tory business plans in opposition, she will be head of policy implementation.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Metro mayors can help Labour return to government

Labour champions in the new city regions can help their party at the national level too.

2017 will mark the inaugural elections of directly-elected metro mayors across England. In all cases, these mayor and cabinet combined authorities are situated in Labour heartlands, and as such Labour should look confidently at winning the whole slate.

Beyond the good press winning again will generate, these offices provide an avenue for Labour to showcase good governance, and imperatively, provide vocal opposition to the constraints of local government by Tory cuts.

The introduction of the Mayor of London in 2000 has provided a blueprint for how the media can provide a platform for media-friendly leadership. It has also demonstrated the ease that the office allows for attribution of successes to that individual and party – or misappropriated in context of Boris Bikes and to a lesser extent the London Olympics.

While without the same extent of the powers of the sui generis mayor of the capital, the prospect of additional metro-mayors provide an opportunity for replicating these successes while providing experience for Labour big-hitters to develop themselves in government. This opportunity hasn’t gone unnoticed, and after Sadiq Khan’s victory in London has shown that the role can grow beyond the limitations – perceived or otherwise - of the Corbyn shadow cabinet while strengthening team Labour’s credibility by actually being in power.

Shadow Health Secretary and former leadership candidate Andy Burnham’s announcement last week for Greater Manchester was the first big hitter to make his intention known. The rising star of Luciana Berger, another member of Labour’s health team, is known to be considering a run in the Liverpool City Region. Could we also see them joined by the juggernaut of Liam Byrne in the West Midlands, or next-generation Catherine McKinnell in the North East?

If we can get a pantheon of champions elected across these city regions, to what extent can this have an influence on national elections? These new metro areas represent around 11.5 million people, rising to over 20 million if you include Sadiq’s Greater London. While no doubt that is an impressive audience that our Labour pantheon are able to demonstrate leadership to, there are limitations. 80 of the 94 existing Westminster seats who are covered under the jurisdiction of the new metro-mayors are already Labour seats. While imperative to solidify our current base for any potential further electoral decline, in order to maximise the impact that this team can have on Labour’s resurgence there needs to be visibility beyond residents.

The impact of business is one example where such influence can be extended. Andy Burnham for example has outlined his case to make Greater Manchester the creative capital of the UK. According to the ONS about 150,000 people commute into Greater Manchester, which is two constituency’s worth of people that can be directly influenced by the Mayor of Greater Manchester.

Despite these calculations and similar ones that can be made in other city-regions, the real opportunity with selecting the right Labour candidates is the media impact these champion mayors can make on the national debate. This projects the influence from the relatively-safe Labour regions across the country. This is particularly important to press the blame of any tightening of belts in local fiscal policy on the national Tory government’s cuts. We need individuals who have characteristics of cabinet-level experience, inspiring leadership, high profile campaigning experience and tough talking opposition credentials to support the national party leadership put the Tory’s on the narrative back foot.

That is not to say there are not fine local council leaders and technocrats who’s experience and governance experience at vital to Labour producing local successes. But the media don’t really care who number two is, and these individuals are best serving the national agenda for the party if they support A-listers who can shine a bright spotlight on our successes and Tory mismanagement.

If Jeremy Corbyn and the party are able to topple the Conservatives come next election, then all the better that we have a diverse team playing their part both on the front bench and in the pantheon of metro-mayors. If despite our best efforts Jeremy’s leadership falls short, then we will have experienced leaders in waiting who have been able to afford some distance from the front-bench, untainted and able to take the party’s plan B forward.