Why Cameron is giving Downing Street a political edge

The decision to make the next head of the No.10 Policy Unit a political appointee, rather than a civil servant, shows the PM has listened to complaints from Tory MPs.

So David Cameron is listening. According to a report on PoliticsHome, the Prime Minister has decided that the next head of his policy unit will be a political, rather than a civil service appointee. Paul Kirby, the current policy chief, is on secondment from the accountancy firm KPMG and is due to leave in March. He has been acting as a civil servant. His replacement, we are told, will be a special advisor. The distinction is not without significance.

The colonisation of No.10 by mandarins at the expense of heavyweight spads has been one of the most consistent complaints from Tory MPs – and indeed spads elsewhere in Whitehall – about the Cameron operation. The gripe is that the civil servants are loyal to the machine, not the party, that they lack strategic judgment and are predisposed to be ultra-cautious. Many Tories, not just the fanatical fringe, think capture by the Mandarinate explains why the government has lacked the dynamic, radical edge they crave. (Civil servants are, after all, supposed not to be ideological pioneers.)

A connected complaint is the fact that ministers and their spads out in the departments don’t know who in No 10 is covering their brief and therefore who to feed ideas to and lobby for support. There has been a sense that civil service channels work around the party, a process that, coupled with coalition and Lib Dem machinations, can feel like a conspiracy to stop the Tories from controlling government. In recent months, resentment of Whitehall officialdom has focused increasingly on the power of Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary who is said to wield formidable influence across government and to be a whisperer of cautious counsel in the Prime Minister’s ear. (Some of that resentment has bubbled up to the surface recently in public examination of Heywood’s role in the whole “plebgate” saga. )

Without an energetic party political policy boss at the very centre, projects can drift off course, lose momentum or just go plain wrong. One example: elections for police and crime commissioners last year were originally meant to be a flagship reform. But they were championed in No.10 by Steve Hilton, Cameron’s former head of strategy, and once he left, there was no one in Downing Street to cheerlead for the project. (And the Lib Dems hated the idea.) So the whole thing ended up a dismal, damp squib. Hilton’s departure last spring is also seen by many Tories as the moment Heywood seized definitive control.

It has been something of a mystery as to why, when the complaints have been so persistent and come from so many sides, the Prime Minister hasn’t acted sooner. One explanation I have heard is that Cameron wanted to wait until civil service contracts naturally expired instead of carrying out a premature purge. That seems oddly lackadaisical given how serious a charge it is that the No.10 operation is politically unfit, but not entirely out of keeping with accounts of Cameron’s character. He plainly finds hiring and firing the least enjoyable part of the job and believes in keeping people in post whenever possible, as his handling of reshuffles testifies.

Tories from all sides of the party will naturally be scrutinising the new appointment for indications of ideological allegiance. Many still find it hard to know exactly what Cameron believes. They will also be hoping for someone who can bring some long-term strategic judgement to the operation. As I write in my column this week, the famous “grid” system that Tony Blair’s team introduced for news planning and hazard spotting on the horizon is said to have broken down in Downing Street. One former No.10 staffer says Cameron’s operation barely looks ahead more than two months, which means they are effectively lost in endless, reactive tactical fire-fighting.

One final point about the new Downing Street Head of Policy, whoever he or she turns out to be. There will be much attention paid in the Conservative ranks to whether or not a “Cameron crony” gets the gig. Another routine complaint levelled against the PM is that he surrounds himself with courtier-chums, all from much the same background and often the same school. No doubt that makes for a jovial time in the office, but it carries the obvious risk that alternative perspectives are neglected and cosy consensus goes unchallenged. One middle-aged, privately-educated civil servant, says of interacting with the exceedingly privileged No.10 crew: “I can come across as fairly posh and they still make me feel like the stable boy.”

There is a feeling across much of the party and in government that the Downing Street setup needs someone at its heart who knows something of the world outside Cameron’s gilded circle and who has a forceful enough personality to force that perspective on the Prime Minister regardless of whether it is something he wants to hear.

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London, on January 18, 2013, as he prepares to address the House of Commons. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.