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Four appointments that would address Downing Street's vulnerabilities

Tim Montgomerie


Images of Cameron's inner team from the CCHQ war room on the night of Boris Johnson's election as Mayor of London.

Over the weekend there was renewed speculation about the strength of the Downing Street operation (see Andrew Grice in The Independent and Iain Martin at the Wall Street Journal). I've written before about four key weaknesses at Number 10; (1) The lack of a Leo McGarry-style Chief of Staff, ready to bang heads together and resolve some of the tensions within the team; (2) a Chief Explainer, to chat to commentators about the purpose of the government; (3) a Wordsmith to bring Cameron's speeches alive; and (4) an External Relations capacity to improve relations with the conservative movement and other key groups in society.

Cameron is reluctant to change his inner team. He's comfortable with the people around him. But this is part of the problem. Few people say uncomfortable things to him. The Government may be doing ok now but there is a tendency for Cameron's machine to never operate at more than 70% or 80%. It coasted when it had big opinion poll leads in opposition (not in terms of work rate but in terms of maximising policy and campaigning opportunities) and we know what happened to those leads. It's not maximising now and it's not addressing weaknesses.

Here are four people who would address some of the operation's weaknesses:

Charles Moore. He's currently Chairman of the Policy Exchange think tank. He's Lady Thatcher's biographer. He's a former Editor of The Daily Telegraph and still a columnist there. In other words he's engaged in the battle of ideas. He's part of the Conservative Right. He's a journalist who understands the commentariat. I have no idea if he'd be willing but he'd be a perfect Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister, charged with reaching out to the think tanks, charming the centre right columnists and helping the PM understand the conservative movement. Team Cameron is a bunkered operation with few deeply-committed friends. The Team hardly talk to people. Even when the influential figures within the movement agree with what Downing Street is doing, they don't feel part of it all. They don't feel loved. This creates a distance that becomes dangerous when Downing Street does things that people don't agree with and when times are tougher. Moore has the authority and reputation to make the PM-Right relationship work in both directions; He is respected by the Right and he he has the stature that means, if he joined Downing Street, he couldn't be ignored.

Ian Birrell. A journalist, former Deputy Editor of The Independent, Big Society advocate and, crucially, a friend of David Cameron. He joined the Cameron operation for the six weeks before the General Election and helped write speeches and generally give Cameron a fresh perspective. He left after the election but if Cameron is looking to strengthen his operation he would be the obvious choice. He could do what I've recommended Charles Moore does with the conservative movement, with the wider commentariat; explaining what the government is doing. Andy Coulson doesn't really do that role. Coulson has brought discipline to Tory communications and a much needed tabloid radar. But most of the media only get lines-to-take and rebukes from Downing Street. It is only really George Osborne who calls up political editors and chats about the mission, purpose and, yes, vulnerabilities of what the government is doing. Because Cameron has a friendship with Birrell he'd be an insider from day one, not after eighteen months. He'd speak truth to power immediately and everyone who engaged with him, from the outside, would know that he was speaking for the PM. He's also good with words and could help Cameron to produce more memorable speeches.

James Frayne. I've known James for some time and he's probably the best student of grassroots campaigning on the UK Right. His blog is one of the best in Britain. The Tories need his ideas. They need his understanding of the importance of third party campaign groups in the battle for ideas. He explains their value here. In Stephen Gilbert Cameron has a wise Political Secretary and a brilliant field campaigner. Adding James to the team would bring a harder edge and someone perhaps a little more in tune with the anti-establishment voter.

Cameron-timpson-404_673607c Edward Timpson MP. The MP who won the Crewe and Nantwich by-election is currently Theresa May's Parliamentary Private Secretary but Cameron should steal him for himself. Desmond Swayne is currently PPS and brilliant, I understand, in encouraging the PM and helping him prepare for PMQs but he no longer functions as a link between the parliamentary party and Downing Street. He's simply been in the job for too long and has either gone native or is seen to have gone native. Cameron could install Timpson alongside Swayne if he wants to keep him. IDS and Michael Howard both had two PPSs (one from the party's Left and one from the Right). New MPs, in particular, don't think Downing Street listens to them enough, nor understands them. They have a much better view of George Osborne, partly because of the energetic work of the Chancellor's PPS, Greg Hands. Greg Hands - the Class of 2010 tell me - is superb at keeping MPs informed of what the Chancellor is thinking and of ensuring the Chancellor understands backbench opinion. Since Michael Fallon joined CCHQ (although, in reality, he joined Downing St) things have improved but Timpson would go further still in bridging the gap. He's young and fresh enough to relate to the new MPs. Sat on a marginal seat and an accomplished campaigner he also shares the new intake's nervousness about re-election.


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