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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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