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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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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