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 Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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