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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How Ukip’s Douglas Carswell made himself obsolete

The brightest possible future for him now involves joining one of those sinister US think tanks.

On a muggy day in August 2014, Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Clacton in Essex, defected to Ukip, saying that he hoped to see “fundamental change” in British politics. He won the ensuing by-election comfortably, becoming the first person elected to parliament on the purple ticket. The next day, in a column in the Daily Express, his new leader, Nigel Farage, asked how many more Tory MPs would follow suit: “Two, seven, ten?”

Farage wasn’t alone. There were rumours that other Tory right-wingers were poised to follow Carswell over the top. The bookies started laying odds on who would go next. In the end, just one did: Mark Reckless, the MP for Rochester, who defected on 27 September 2014, donning the chain mail and gormless expression of a particularly unthreatening crusader for an ill-judged Sunday Times photo shoot. (Reckless, unlike Carswell, lost his seat in the 2015 general election; he now fights the good fight as a Ukip member of the Welsh Assembly.)

Not only did Farage’s predicted flood never happen, it has now gone into reverse. On 25 March, Carswell quit the party to sit as an independent. This time, oddly, he seems unconcerned that the “only honourable thing” to do would be to call a by-election. Ukip, once again, is left without an MP.

The party’s grandees are delighted. Farage has dismissed Carswell, without irony, as a “Tory party posh boy”, too much of a wuss to talk about immigration. Arron Banks, formerly Ukip’s main donor, was even threatening to stand against him – an interesting approach to take to the only man ever to win your party a seat at a general election.

It’s hard to imagine that Carswell feels too heartbroken, either. He claimed that he only defected in the first place to pressure David Cameron into promising a referendum and to stop Ukip from wrecking the Leave campaign’s chances of victory. On both counts, he succeeded: the referendum was included in the Tories’ 2015 manifesto; official recognition as the voice of the Leave campaign went to the cross-party Vote Leave group, rather than the Ukip-dominated (and Banks-funded) Leave.EU. In this version of events, Carswell was never really a Ukip man at all: the reason so few Tory MPs followed him is that he made sure they didn’t need to.

So has Carswell won? He has achieved his big goal of getting Britain out of the European Union. Yet there’s a measure of pathos in this victory, because he was wrong. It wasn’t his liberal, free-trading vision of Brexit that swung the referendum. It was Banks’s and Farage’s warnings that 70 million Turks were going to move in and take over.

More than that, the tone set by the referendum has put the rest of Carswell’s agenda out of reach. The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain, the 2008 book that he co-wrote with the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, painted a liberal picture of Brexit, all Norway model and free trade. It spoke of other libertarian pipe dreams, too: moving powers from prime minister to parliament, local democracy and (God forbid) more referendums.

This now looks quaintly irrelevant. It’s hard to see Theresa May’s newly authoritarian Conservative Party embracing these ideas. If Ukip is dying, that’s largely because the ideas that it espoused have been adopted by the governing party.

As for Carswell, he has given up any influence he once had. May, not one to forget betrayals, is unlikely to welcome him back. The Tories will probably throw everything at retaking his seat in 2020 to show that they have conquered the Ukip threat.

How the Clacton MP, aged just 45, will fill the second half of his life is an open question. His CV is not one that points towards a career as a well-paid City adviser. He has neither the passion nor the charm (nor, frankly, the looks) for a broadcast career. The brightest possible future for him involves joining one of those sinister US think tanks that talk a lot about freedom while plotting to make poor people poorer.

Carswell joined Ukip to drag it in a more liberal direction. He ended up pushing the Tories in a more Farageist one. Today, he is best described by an epithet that he once reserved for the EU: obsolete.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition