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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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.