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Donal Blaney: Staff is policy

Every week the Co-Founder and Chief Executive of the Young Britons' Foundation, Donal Blaney, explains one of Morton Blackwell's Laws of the Public Policy Process. Morton Blackwell is the Founder and President of the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

Much of the Conservative Party's difficulties over the past decade was blamed on the Party leadership's inability to present its message effectively to the media. This was in part due to the fair wind the mainstream media gave the Blair government for much of its first two terms. It was also due, however, to the inherent bias in the broadcast media that has still yet to be addressed (although the impending launch of an internet-based television channel involving ConservativeHome itself will help).

However was it right to place the blame at the doors of the media? Could it instead be seen as a cop-out to blame the bias of the BBC and the laziness of print journalists who allowed themselves to be bullied by Alastair Campbell for so long? After all it was Enoch Powell who commented some 30 years ago that a politician who complains about the media is the same as a mariner complaining about the sea.

An alternative explanation may lie in the content of the message itself and the calibre of those presenting it. This is less palatable for politicians to accept but it is worth considering further in the context of this week's Law of the Public Policy Process - that staff IS policy.

This Law essentially states that it is as important - if not more important - for the right people to be in place, rather than merely to focus on policy or message. Margaret Thatcher realised this when she ensured that the key economic and industrial portfolios in her governments were filled by "true believers" such as Howe, Lawson, Biffen, Joseph and Tebbit.

Blair similarly chose a tightly-knit group of loyalists as his coterie: Mandelson, Campbell, Byers, Blunkett and Milburn. In recent years - endeavouring to learn from Thatcher's failure to ensure her legacy was preserved after her demise - Blair has moved to ensure that the likes of Milliband, Blears and Jowell assume roles of greater importance.

By contrast, IDS' leadership was fatally undermined by a failure to surround himself with sufficiently loyal lieutenants. Notwithstanding IDS' own performance as leader in difficult circumstances, those in control of CCO did not do all that they ought to have done to support IDS as leader.

David Cameron has his own tight-knit group of advisors and shadow ministers, many of who notoriously live in or around Notting Hill. And yet will this be sufficient for him to be able to advance the policy agenda (when it comes) that is so important for the Party to win the next election and to govern effectively thereafter? If the wrong people are in place, the right policies will not be enacted well or explained properly to the electorate (or the Party's already nervous traditional supporters).

Are those who have been entrusted with shadow cabinet portfolios really up to the task? Clearly they are united behind Cameron's leadership in a way that shows their desire for office and a belief that victory is within reach (this stands in contrast to the divided cabinet of John Major and the disunity in IDS' shadow cabinet). But is unity of purpose enough? Is a belief in "modernisation" and the need "to change to win" enough?

Other than Francis Maude, William Hague and David Davis can any members of the shadow cabinet honestly be said to be performing as well and with such prominence as the activists would like? I am willing to bet that if an average activist - let alone voter - were to be asked to name the Tory spokesman on any particular area they would be hard pushed to do so. I do not dispute that many of those spokesmen are doing no doubt very worthy things in Parliament or as part of the policy review groups but the fact is that they are failing to communicate what they are doing or landing enough punches on a thoroughly inept and discredited government.

The Party has at its disposal some 200 or so MPs. Many of those MPs have been shadow ministers for a number of years and they are understandably exhausted by the grind of being in opposition. Now that the Party stands on the possible brink of an election victory, it is more important than for a long time that the Party is served at its highest levels by those who have the academic clout, the media skills, the political nous, the philosophical backbone, the belief and the stomach for the fight.

Cameron's position is sufficiently strong that he can reshuffle his front bench team without worrying about men in grey suits making an approach with concealed daggers ready to be wielded if he doesn't resign. He should use that position to re-fashion his team so that the most committed MPs and Peers are in place in readiness for the fight with Gordon Brown. Presentation and policy are important - but so is having the right team. If we, the activists, are to do our bit and to work harder than we have ever worked to rid the country of this corrupt government, it is only right that those who represent us in parliament do their bit too.

Previous entry in this series:
In politics, nothing moves unless it is pushed


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