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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: The attacks on David Cameron's Downing Street operation are a thinly-disguised attack on him

Revolts against early modern Monarchs often began with a campaign against the King's evil counsellors. That was not how they ended. Richard II sacrificed Bushy, Bagot and Green; Charles I, Strafford. Much good it did either of them. David Cameron's Downing Street team is now under attack. The Prime Minister should understand the importance of rebutting that assault. It is a thinly-disguised attack on him.

There are two principal charges. First, that Number10 is insufficiently political. Second, that the PM himself is more like a non-executive chairman than a chief executive. There is no truth in either.

An average Downing Street day begins at 5.45am, when Mr Cameron starts work on his boxes: anything left over from the previous day, plus the material that has arrived overnight, much of it from the Foreign Office. By 8.00am, that has been processed, with copious notes and instructions. At 8.30am, there is a political meeting, chaired by the PM. George Osborne will usually be there, as will Oliver Letwin and Patrick McLoughlin, the Chief Whip, plus other ministers on an ad hoc basis. William Hague is a frequent attender. If David Cameron is away, George Osborne will take the chair. If both of them are absent, the PM's chief of staff, Edward Llewellyn, will preside. The Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, will often be present, as will Paul Kirby, the Head of the Number 10 policy unit. Ed Llewellyn's deputy, Kate Fall, is normally there as is Chris Martin, the PM's principal private secretary. The Number 10 special advisors appear as required.

Anyone glancing at that cast of characters, which includes some very important people whom no-one has ever heard of, might reach two conflicting conclusions. First, it is easy to understand why they are all needed. Second, is there not a danger that the meeting will become unwieldy? That latter consideration weighs heavily with Messrs Cameron and Llewellyn. Few human beings are immune to self-importance and those in politics tend to be less immune than most. A meeting with the Prime Minister: everyone wants to be there. In order to keep it business-like, most of them have to be excluded.

When the BSE degringolade occurred, forty officials attended the first crisis meeting. Although that was not the sole reason why the situation slid out of control, it did not help. In the reign of William Hague as Tory leader, there was a constant frustration. One would phone X; he was in a meeting. Y: he was in a meeting. Z: he too was in a meeting. It did not require much deductive power to work out that they were all in the same meeting, many of which seemed interminable. Meetings are only justifiable when they are agenda-based, in the proper sense of agenda: not an excuse to waffle on, but a list of things that need doing.

When the Cameroons arrived in Downing St, they found that there was a hiatus. Under Gordon Brown, the normal structure of boxes and meetings had collapsed. The PM would sit behind a table heaped with disordered papers. Bellowing noises would emanate from the room. Did this mean that some large sick animal, an escapee from London Zoo, had somehow found a way into No.10? Or was it the Prime Minister, issuing instructions? No-one could ever tell. That is one reason why the current Downing St is so harmonious. Those who shudder when they remember the chaos of the old days are grateful for the new dispensation.

So is the 8.30 a.m session a political assemblage, or a civil service one? The answer is neither, and both. It is a strategy meeting, dealing with immediate problems and longer-term ones. Its purpose is to direct the operations of government. There is a similar meeting at 4.00 pm, with the same attendees.

At these meetings, and throughout No.10, people are not wearing different cap-badges, identifying them as ministers, officials or advisors. Everyone works as a team. Given the stress and the challenges, it is a remarkably harmonious team, for one reason. Its members have been carefully selected and are all highly able. In previous No.10s, that was not always the case. Mrs Thatcher had some weird political appointees. John Major chose Judith Chaplin, who was insecure, because she was over-promoted, and who eventually rewarded John Major's loyalty to her by writing a book which was disloyal about him.

It would also be absurd to claim that political advisors and officials inhabit different universes. Charles Powell was the most important Downing Street official of all time. Bernard Ingham is a strong candidate for second place. Both were officials. Leaving such exceptional characters on one side, there is a difference between advisors, who tend to be more ideological, and officials, principally interested in making things work. But if there is a tension between the two approaches, it should be a creative one, leading to cooperation and mutual respect.

A bad workman blames his tools; in my experience, ministers who cannot get on with officials are invariably bad ministers. That said, there may be one exception. There are rumours that parts of the Department of Education have fallen victim to the Gramscian long march through the institutions and that some officials are trying to sabotage Michael Gove's attempts to improve educational standards. Apropos standards, some education ministers have encountered illiteracy in their own private offices. Mr Gove ought to harden his heart.

Sabotage should never be confused with plain speaking. Strong officials ought to be ready to speak truth unto power, even if power does not always enjoy the message. Led by Jeremy Heywood, the officials who deal regularly with the Prime Minister are all strong characters. So is their Boss. In David Cameron's Downing St, with the possible exception of Larry, the moggy, no-one doubts who is in charge.


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