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16 February 2011

Memo to Andrew Cooper, Cameron’s “strategic corporal”

It’s the policies that matter, not the presentation.

By Olly Grender

To be a director of strategy in politics is fraught with so many contradictions that the newly appointed Andrew Cooper will probably spend the first few weeks trying to define his role. Everyone, from the Prime Minister to Larry the rat-catching cat, will have a different interpretation of what that is.

The military now understands that the usual approach of “strategic” to “operational” to “tactical” is no longer applicable in a modern world. Instead, they have accepted that, due to the speed of global communication from media such as WikiLeaks, 24-hour news and social networking websites, the distinct lines between all three have blurred.

The military now talk about the “strategic corporal”. Meaning that, in modern-day warfare, a corporal on the ground can change the overall strategy of the entire campaign. Because whatever that corporal does can instantly appear on the news – from an act of heroism to a war crime. Everything is out in the open.

That theory also applies to politics. Take forestry as an example. This was simply not on the radar for Downing Street until it “timbered” into No 10. At which point, No 10 failed to own the story, create the message and win it back. No wonder Ed Miliband led on it during Prime Minister’s Questions today. The government remains firmly on the back foot as it stumbles towards the inevitable U-turn on this.

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Often politicians talk about the need to separate out strategy from tactics, as the former Conservative minister John Redwood argued in a recent blog. But they find it much harder to deliver in reality. I suspect that some of the key strategic meetings in government over the past two weeks have spent vast amounts of time talking about forestry when they should have been focused on longer-term issues such as welfare and the economy.

The problem does not belong to this government alone. I recall a Labour friend bemoaning a secretary of state who was “more like a press officer than anything else”, always firing off releases rather than getting on with the job of governing. In his book The New Machiavelli, Jonathan Powell explains how, as chief of staff to Tony Blair, he would spend days dealing with issues like Bernie Ecclestone and Lord Levy.

The corporate sector has similar crisis moments. What is different, however, is that corporates normally have plans in place, staff tasked with dealing with the difficulty, and senior managers trained to handle the story. Or they have a trusted external agency whose jobs and reputation aren’t on the line. An agency like that has the objectivity to make swift decisions. In the corporate sector, a crisis handled well can lead to an increase in share price and enhanced reputation.

But trying to raise the sights of senior politicians above the daily fears generated in the Daily Mail is mission impossible.

So here’s a question and a thought. Is it possible for cabinet ministers to focus on the long term and on key strategic issues and leave others in the government to worry about the immediate firestorms? I suspect that to turn around the reputation of the Lib Dems right now would require a level of resource, staffing and attention that is simply impossible to deliver. So, why not focus on the substance of the policies instead?

Let the media maelstrom happen. Have a strong communications strategy ready for 2013. It’s the substance, not the presentation that matters.

Would that lead to better government? Would it even be achievable? Or is everyone now a strategic corporal – including Larry the cat?