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 the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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