Conservative Diary

Seven Vulnerabilities

15 Nov 2010 07:34:30

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.

Continue reading "Four appointments that would address Downing Street's vulnerabilities" »

14 Oct 2010 16:59:29

Cameron's seven vulnerabilities: (3) People don't know what the Coalition is trying to achieve

By Tim Montgomerie

This is the third in a series looking at David Cameron's seven vulnerabilities. On Tuesday I identified Ken Clarke's prisons policy and yesterday I identified the government's squeeze on the middle classes.

When I wrote my report on the Tory General Election campaign I kept asking leading members of the Cameron operation for a summary of the message. Without hesitation they immediately gave me a message. Unfortunately the message chosen by each person was never the same.

I haven't repeated the exercise now we are in government but I fear I'd get similarly inconsistent responses. It's one of the reasons why the ConHome team, Charles Moore and Max Wind-Cowie recently attempted our own definitions.

The lack of a clear, understandable message from Downing Street means that voters haven't got a clear idea of what this government is trying to achieve - other than cutting the deficit. Cutting the deficit is a massive project but does Cameron want to be defined by cuts? No. In August he and Nick Clegg defined their government as an exercise in two things; decentralisation and long-term reform. Last week, in Birmingham, he said that deficit reduction was a necessity but fostering the Big Society was his project of choice.

Some good definitions of the Big Society have been attempted - not least by Ian Birrell in last Saturday's Guardian - but as time goes by I'm actually getting more confused. I no longer know if it's (1) a catch all description of everything the Coalition is doing (last week wealth creators were added to the Big Society) or (2) whether it's a narrower project to revive the small platoons that lie between the individual and the state - particularly charities, local schools and social enterprises. If it's the latter it is striking that there is no great reform of the ways in which the state has produced a charitable sector in its own image. Approximately a third of the voluntary sector's income comes from the state and there are huge flows of personnel between leading charities and government. This means we have a third sector that is government-directed rather than society-directed. The Coalition has no agenda to reverse this.

This is a radical government. It is reforming on almost every front. Education. Healthcare. Policing. Welfare. Universities.  The leaders of the government need to knit the ideas together, however, before opponents do it for them.

13 Oct 2010 06:48:33

Cameron's seven vulnerabilities: (2) The squeezed middle

By Tim Montgomerie

On Monday I identified reasons why Cameron could be hopeful about the 2015 General Election. Today I identify the second of seven vulnerabilities in the Cameron offering. Yesterday's vulnerability was Ken Clarke's prisons policy.

The new Labour leader has not enjoyed the best of starts. The overnight YouGov poll has the Tory lead widening since Ed Miliband beat his older brother. The Tories are on 43%, 7% ahead of Labour. The Tories haven't suffered - it seems - from last week's child benefit row.

Labour strategists clearly see middle class unhappiness as their route back to power:

  • Mr Miliband has talked about "the squeezed middle".
  • He has vowed to defend universal benefits, like child benefit.
  • They are ridiculing the big society call for more volunteering - saying it betrays an ignorance of the pressures already loaded upon hardworking families or 'the coping classes' as The Telegraph calls them.
  • One of Mr Miliband's motivations for the appointment of Alan Johnson was to have someone in the Treasury frontline who voters could identify with. It is notable that as part of the 'we understand your pain, the public schoolboys boys can't' strategy, backbench Labour MPs are increasingly targeting George Osborne's "millionaire" background.
  • Yesterday in the Commons the new Labour higher education spokesman, John Denham, said that teachers, engineers, middle managers and women would suffer most from higher interest charges on tuition fees because the poor would be protected and the rich would repay loans early. The Social Market Foundation appears to justify this reading of the Browne report.

The Daily Mail pursues exactly the same theme as Mr Denham today:

"Isn’t the bitter truth that, yet again, the hardest hit will be the aspirational classes on modest-to-middling incomes – teachers, nurses, middle-managers, engineers – the life-blood of our economy? As ever, high-earning City types won’t suffer – even under the Lib Dems’ plans for a surcharge on graduates who repay their loans early (itself a tax on prudence). The poorest will be protected, too. But for those caught in the middle, the debts they incur will hang over them for most of their lives, blighting their chances of a mortgage and their hopes of raising families of their own in comfort."

Continue reading "Cameron's seven vulnerabilities: (2) The squeezed middle" »

12 Oct 2010 09:00:17

Cameron's seven vulnerabilities: (1) Prisons policy

By Tim Montgomerie

Yesterday I identified five very early reasons why Cameron could be hopeful about re-election. I identify another on Seats and candidates today; the incumbency factor. Today I begin a seven part series looking at Cameron's vulnerabilities.

AchillesThis morning's Mail reports that Ken Clarke's sentencing review may reduce prison numbers by 7,000. That is quite a turnaround for a party that, before the election, promised to increase prison numbers to 100,000.

The prisons works policy was the outstanding policy success of the John Major era. Michael Howard's decision to put more people away was the decisive reason for the reversal of the post-WWII increase in crime. Better technologies (eg for car and home security) played their part but prison really did work.

Prison serves four main purposes: deterrent, punishment, incarceration and rehabilitation. Howard's insight was to recognise that incarceration was key. While repeat and serious offenders were in jail they could not commit any more offences. Simples. Crime fell because the criminals who were guilty of a disproportionate number of offences were behind bars and unable to cause the public harm.

It's true, as Justice Secretary Ken Clarke claims, that Britain has a relatively high imprisonment rate per head of overall population. That's the wrong statistic, however. Dr David Green of Civitas has argued that the key statistic is prison population per number of crimes and, on that measure, Britain's prisons population is actually below the EU average because we have such high levels of crime.

Green also points out that persistent offenders aren't being jailed. "In 2008," he wrote on CentreRight, "criminals who had 15 or more previous convictions or cautions were given custody in only 40% of cases when they were convicted of a serious (indictable) crime."

Green goes on to point out that community sentences - Clarke's preferred policy - have 91% failure rates. Additionally, while offenders are on community sentences the public is obviously not as safe as when offenders are behind bars.

Ken Clarke is obviously right to improve rehabilitation rates. ConHome has long been a supporter of the reabilitation revolution that Nick Herbert MP drafted in opposition. Paying prison governors by results might produce the kind of innovation in humane prisoner education that might reduce terrible rates of recidivism.

Overall, however, the decision to reduce prison numbers is wrong. Prison numbers should only be cut once the rebabilitation revolution is delivering results. Cutting numbers now is wrong because it is a breach of a manifesto promise. It is wrong because it starts to undo one of the Conservative Party's greatest policy successes of modern times. It is wrong because community sentences don't protect the public.

Ed Balls may be shadowing Theresa May but you can expect the Shadow Home Secretary to shout from the rooftops, constituency-by-constituency, when offenders on one of Ken Clarke's community programmes injure the public. The Mail, Sun, Express, Telegraph and, importantly, local newspapers will provide him with plenty of space for his message.