In 2001 or so, I wrote a speech for Iain Duncan Smith that went well enough, and was drafted on the back of it into his team for Prime Minister's Questions prep. The other three members were David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson (and I should say in passing that those first two were infinitely better at the task than I was). I thus spent part of each week, for the best half of four years, with the duo that leads the Conservative Party.
I never saw them tip the wink at their underlings to "destroy" a senior Shadow Minister, or leak details of another's alleged "drinking, fighting and carousing", or tip off newspapers about their rivals "drug use, spousal abuse, alcoholism and extra-marital affairs" - all conduct that Damian McBride writes of in his memoir, serialisation of which opens in the Daily Mail today. There are three possible explanations for this (assuming that Tory MPs as well as Labour ones are vulnerable to drinking, fighting, carousing, drug use, spousal abuse, alcoholism and extra-marital affairs which, since human nature is a given, is a reasonable presumption).
The first is that I'm incapable of seeing what goes on at the end of my nose. The second is that Cameron and Osborne did all this and more when I wasn't around. The third is that it didn't happen - or at least, to nothing like the same degree. Call me sentimental, self-deceived or a liar, but I'm sure the explanaton is the third. You don't get to the top of politics without being ruthless - and both are as much so as any politician I worked with during my ten years in the Commons. None the less, I can't imagine either discussing plans to set up a paper called, say, "Blue Rag" to smear a woman Labour MP with fictitious tales - as McBride did in relation to Nadine Dorries.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Andy Coulson, David Cameron's former head of communications, has written an article for the October edition of GQ (out this week) in which he gives some advice on how the Tories might counter UKIP. In summary...
I asked yesterday whether David Cameron or the Whips bore the main responsibility for this week's party management disaster over Syria. A day later, the answer is evident. Downing Street presumed, not unreasonably, that Ed Miliband would deliver a Labour abstention on the vote. The Whips - also not unreasonably - took their cue from Number 10, made the same presumption, and told some Conservative MPs that they didn't need to return. One was no less senior a person than the Chairman of the 1922 Committee. In essence, the Prime Minister was prepared to hold a vote on missile strikes despite opposition to the move from a third or more of Tory MPs. This is party mismanagement on an epic scale.
In the aftermath of yesterday evening's vote - apparently unparalleled since 1782 - it is impossible to know which version of events is the more accurate. What is clear, however, is that the failure of the Prime Minister's gamble over Syria is a reminder that the success of his summer to date has not bridged the gap of trust which persists between him and his MPs, and which at times can widen into a gulf.
Number 10 would be in panic mode were it immediately to effect the changes recommended below - the first two of which this site has been campaigning for since I became its Editor in April. But until or unless they are implemented, the progress which Downing Street has made since the Queen's Speech and the Baron amendment will be at constant risk of being set back. A hung Parliament requires a more collective style of leadership.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Earlier this week The Spectator's James Forsyth reported that the PM's trusted aide Gaby Bertin would return from maternity leave to run a new Department of External Relations. The appointment is the latest attempt to strengthen the Downing Street operation, including the appointment of The Sun's Graeme Wilson as press secretary. A Department of External Relations - based on the White House model - has long been proposed by ConHome (also here and here) as a way of ensuring effective management of relationships with strategic opinion-formers, including third party organisations and charities. Time will tell if this DExR will get adequate resources and whether Gaby Bertin will be empowered to build long-term relations with groups like the RSPB, FSB and think tanks - or whether she'll be constantly pulled into day-to-day responding to events. That caution aside, its formation is welcome news.
By Mark Wallace
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The news today that Graeme Wilson, Deputy Political Editor of The Sun, has been appointed as press secretary is one result of that process.
It's a good choice - Graeme has a great nose for a story, and just as importantly is extremely likeable. Not everyone in the Lobby gets on with each other, to put it mildly, so it is both important and tricky to secure a candidate who is universally liked.
There are two interesting aspects to flag up. The first is that while parts of the left predictably moan about "another Murdoch man" being hired, it isn't that simple. As well as Murdoch's supposed control of individual journalists being very much exaggerated, Wilson hasn't always worked at The Sun. Indeed, he spent ten years writing for other papers before joining it - several of them at the Daily Telegraph.
I wrote last week that Lyton Crosby should first drop his other clients, and then take complete charge of the Conservative campaign machine - as Tim Montgomerie and I have recommended from the outset. The next day, the Daily Telegraph reported senior Conservatives as saying that there is a "working assumption" that this will happen, and that the strategist is “not averse” to working exclusively for the Party in the 15 months before the next general election. Boris Johnson, for whom the Crosby did such effective work, has recommended that the Party kill the fatted calf, push the boat out and do "whatever it takes" - in other words, pay the strategist enough to make it worth his while to put his other clients aside until June 2015.
Yesterday's publication of Crosby's terms of engagement and statement by the Cabinet Secretary can thus be read as part of a holding position. Crosby confimed that he hadn't discussed tobacco with the Prime Minister (as was obvious from the start) and that he hasn't used his position as a campaign adviser improperly (ditto). Sir Jeremy Heywood said that the strategist hasn't influenced policy on alcohol or energy either, and repeated Downing Street’s assurance that he does not meet civil servants. He also published the Party's terms of engagement with Crosby. These bar him from lobbying the Government or claiming privileged access.
By Peter Hoskin
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David Cameron was chin-juttingly firm about many subjects in his interview with Andrew Marr. On child pornography, the main subject of the piece, he warned of “stronger laws” if the internet firms don’t act stronger themselves. On the idea that Samantha Cameron is influencing Government policy toward Syria, he claimed it’s “a total urban myth”. And on Europe, he raised the prospect of Brexit if we don’t get the renegotiation we want.
But it was two wobblier moments that stood out. The first was on Lynton Crosby, when Cameron twice or thrice declined to directly answer the question of whether he had ever spoken with his adviser about plain packaging for cigarettes. Instead, he tried a one-size-fits-all response – “He’s not advising us on policy or issues and he doesn’t intervene on those” – and laughed “that’s the answer you’re getting” when Marr pressed him to be more specific.
The Andy Coulson saga involves a trial. The Lynton Crosby controversy does not. This helps to explain why the latter is a classic Westminster Village story, with its complex calculations about conflicting interests and chinese walls. (David Cameron's strategist is a Party and not a Government employee, and even then only a part-time one.) Boris Johnson's dismissal of the whole business as a "storm in a teacup" will have reflected Downing Street's hope that the Crosby story is only still running because the lobby has little else to write about at the end of the Parliamentary term.
However, the story won't go away forever or even for long, whether this hope is realised or not. Any enterprising journalist can simply look at Government policy on the one hand, dig around about Crosby's business interests on the other...and then write his story. Number 10 will want to close this drip-feed of allegations down, rather than take the risk of them not reverberating beyond the village. I wrote earlier this week that there are only two ways of doing so - either sacking Crosby, or promoting him: in other words, getting him to drop his other clients until 2015, which would involve, as Boris puts it, killing the fatted calf, pushing the boat out and "doing whatever it takes".
David Cameron's Big Society instincts, with their fondess for miniumum alcohol pricing and cigarette plain packaging, might have been deliberately drawn up to drive our antipodean visitor nuts. (Remember Cameron's opposition attack on W.H.Smith for its offering of chocolate oranges at checkouts rather than real oranges.) There is a connection between Crosby's talent for no-nonsense advice, the sharper Tory profile of the past few months and the Conservative poll recovery. The Independent's last poll of polls found the gap between the two main parties closing. Today's Guardian ICM poll finds that it has closed altogether.