Conservative Diary

Team Cameron

12 Jun 2013 07:22:00

First, fewer Special Advisers. Now, a record number. But where's much of the growth? Step forward, Nick Clegg...

By Lewis Sidnick
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Screen shot 2013-06-11 at 20.12.17The departure of Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson from Downing Street received widespread media coverage.  But much less attention has been given to the wave of Prime Ministerial advisers and Special Advisers (SpAds) deserting their posts. Since 2010, with a few exceptions, Secretaries of State have been allowed to have a SpAd, but other Ministers have not (in contrast to the Blair and Brown Governments). When entering Downing Street, David Cameron placed great emphasis on cutting the number of advisers across Government from 82 to 61. The decision got some good headlines - but it was a mistake.

SpAds are crucial to their Ministers. First, they are political, and can therefore protect, warn and be a safety net for a Minister walking the tightrope of Ministerial office. Civil servants have agendas (to varying degrees). They want to direct their Ministers, and they want to influence decisions. A Minister often stands very little chance against an army of civil servants and the boxes of papers that they present. A little advice and perspective from their political adviser can be crucial - but this is unavailable to most of David Cameron’s Ministers below Cabinet level.

Continue reading "First, fewer Special Advisers. Now, a record number. But where's much of the growth? Step forward, Nick Clegg..." »

30 May 2013 16:44:14

Andy Coulson’s GQ article is full of good advice for the PM – but not when it comes to Samantha Cameron

By Peter Hoskin
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Andy Coulson

You may have heard, Andy Coulson – that Andy Coulson – has written a “ten-point masterplan” for David Cameron in the latest issue of GQ. It was published today, so I’ve given it a quick read. Much of the advice it contains is sensible, be it on Mr Cameron’s relationship with his backbenchers (“David should be better at recognising and supporting the talent he has throughout the party”) or on the Eds Miliband and Balls (“The Tories must look for divisions and make the most of them”). But there’s one passage that stands out not just for what it suggests, but also for how hazardous that suggestion is. After an extended paean to Samantha Cameron, Mr Coulson writes:

“Sam might also take a more active part behind the scenes . With the absence of so many original advisors, she is one of the few people able to see straight to the heart of a matter and offer a clear, sensible view. This will naturally steer clear of policy discussion but it shouldn’t stop her joining select strategy meetings. There are few people in Number Ten with a better eye and she could play a key role in the winning back of female voters. As a small example Sam would, I think, agree that when her husband talks about the importance of family he should be careful to include the words ‘single’ and ‘parent’ each and every time.”

Mr Coulson’s enthusiasm for Mrs Cameron is easy to understand. She has, as he says, “maintained a benign and broadly positive press”. And she has also, “[used] her position sensibly with charities such as Save The Children and Tickets for Troops.” In this task, it’s worth noting, she is aided by a special adviser – the idea being to give her a limited amount of support for what is a carefully limited role.

Does Mrs Cameron sometimes go beyond this, and advise her husband on aspects of his job? Almost certainly, in a sort of informal, over-the-breakfast-table way. We already know, for instance, that she has a say in the construction of his major speeches, and that she deployed her creative talents in service of the last Conservative manifesto. But to formalise and expand on this, as Mr Coulson suggests, would be rather risky. After all, despite his casual separation of “select strategy meetings” and “policy discussion”, there’s a murkiness to all this. What about those instances when strategy directs policy, as happens so often? Where are the lines of accountability drawn in the case of the Prime Minister’s spouse? Such questions would arise if ever there was a strong sense that Mrs Cameron was influencing government, but one other would stand above them: who elected her? And the newspapers would scrutinise her all the more rigorously. Just remember how Cherie Blair was treated when it was thought she was interfering in matters governmental.

Such a set-up wouldn’t just be difficult and damaging for Mrs Cameron, but also for her husband. He is already accused of presiding over a “chumocracy” in No.10 – what would it say, to Tory MPs as well as to the public, if he didn’t just number friends among his advisers, but also his wife? No, far better that Mrs Cameron stick with what she’s doing, which is occupying a difficult, delicate position, and occupying it well. Strange that a man who is noted for his streetwise nous should recommend otherwise.

22 May 2013 06:57:24

Three ways for Cameron to get back on the front foot - and stay there

By Paul Goodman
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Cameron heart tshirt 2Here are three measures that, if implemented -

  • Will help to quell the charge that the Party is being led by a "Chumocracy" unrepresentative of its MPs and members.
  • Will stop David Cameron being ambushed by Conservative backbenchers on EU policy, as he was by John Baron's amendment to the Queen's Speech.
  • Will thus prevent these two problems from inter-acting with each other to suggest that the Party is divided.  (If a perception of division persists, victory in 2015 will certainly be impossible.)

They are as follows:

  • The Prime Minister should create an Inner Cabinet - to build collective Party leadership and kill the Downing Street chumocracy charge As I've previously explained, the Cabinet is too big: 32 people are entitled to attend it.  And the Quad, at only two people, is too small (besides, two of its members are Liberal Democrats - giving the junior Coalition partner equal representation at the top, a cause of Tory resentment).  The Prime Minister needs a Conservative Inner Cabinet which meets weekly to shape policy and make decisions.  Attendance should be formal and collegiate, with the following membership: the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Leader of the House, the Chief Whip and the Party Chairman.  Obviously, the right people are needed to fill those posts - but that's a matter for another day.  What matters is that membership of the Inner Cabinet should be strictly related to Ministerial and Party function, and that it should consist of senior politicians only.
  • The standing, morale and effectiveness of the Whips Office should be raised by it becoming a vehicle for promotion - not sacking.  The natural complement to an Inner Cabinet - and thus proper collective leadership - is a Whips Office with real authority.  That able MPs such as Dominic Raab, Ben Wallace and Rob Wilson turned posts in it down at the last resuffle, as was reportedly the case, is a sign that something is wrong.  Perhaps there was a connection with the fact that several Whips simply left the office at the same time: James Duddridge, Brooks Newmark, Shailesh Vara, Bill Wiggin.  There are always special circumstances, but the status of the Whips Office was not raised by so many of its members failing to move on to Ministerial posts.  Cameron will also need a new Chief Whip, since Sir George Young - loyal trooper that he is - only returned to the Cabinet to help the Prime Minister out.  Again, who his replacement should be is a matter for another day.  Enough for today to point out that improving the standing and effectiveness of the Whips Office must be a priority.
  • The Prime Minister can't cure his EU problem until he grips it.  As a wise old hand put it to me, Cameron mistook his EU referendum speech for a process.  He hoped by offering his Party an In-Out referendum to halt internal Party debate on Europe - at least for a while.  The gambit failed.  And it won't succeed while his stance on the repatriation of powers is unresolved.  The lesson of last week is that if the Prime Minister hopes that the Government's review of EU competences and the Party's own manifesto formation will quiet discussion of renegotiation policy within his Party until 2014, he is mistaken.  Two courses of action are open to him.  The first is to make it clear that he favours a minimal repatriation of power after 2015 - social and employment policy plus protection for the City, perhaps.  The second is to put Conservative policy-making on renegotiation in the hands of his Party - the 1922 Committee, the Conservative Policy Forum, and so on - and accept that what would emerge would be, most likely, "Common Market or Out".

Having been in the Commons for the best part of ten years, I appreciate that logic isn't everything in politics: sometimes, even often, there's a role for fudge.  But a lesson of so much that's happened to Cameron on EU policy - from the dropping of the Lisbon referendum commitment in opposition to the EU referendum revolt last week - is that by consistently seeking to put off making decisions on the EU issue, the Prime Minister has merely stored up trouble for himself later.

Continue reading "Three ways for Cameron to get back on the front foot - and stay there" »

21 May 2013 08:05:25

The same-sex marriage bill. Bad when it started. Just as bad now. It should be opposed today.

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-05-21 at 07.43.19No political party should alter a bedrock institution without the following conditions applying - especially if it is the Conservative Party.  A sizeable campaign to change that institution should be in place: in other words, there should be real evidence of public pressure.  The Party should then discuss and debate the matter internally.  If the Party then decides on change, if should say so unambiguously in its general election manifesto.  If it doesn't win the election, but enters into Coalition, any commitment to effect that change should be written into the consequent Coalition Agreement.  Ideally, any bill enacting the change should be preceded by a Green Paper in which any  problematic consequences of the bill could be aired, and solutions thereby sought.  Such solutions could then be written into the bill, or tacked on to it by amendments.  Finally, the bill should be subject to a geniunely free vote.

Not a single one of these conditions apply to the same-sex marriage bill, on which MPs will vote this evening.

No campaign for same-sex marriage preceded the bill.  (Although Stonewall has consistently favoured same-sex marriage, it didn't launch a big campaign for it - at least partly because it thought the Government wouldn't concede it.)  There was no discussion within the Conservative Party, especially at local level.  There was no manifesto commitment.  There was no Coalition Agreement undertaking.  There was no Green Paper.  There have been no significant amendments - other than Labour's on equal civil partnerships.  And there has been no free vote, at least at when it comes to members of the Executive: it has been made very clear to Ministers which lobby the Prime Minister wants them to go into.  For these reasons alone, Tory backbenchers should vote against the bill at Third Reading this evening.  The way in which it has been introduced and championed has broken every rule of good government and party management.

The Loongate row is still reverberating in the Party, especially at local Association level.  The key point about it is that too many Conservatives, from the Cabinet table to the grassroots, believe that the controversial words are what is thought and said of them in Downing Street. No measure has done more to buttress that impression than the same-sex marriage bill - which has been imposed on the Party with such absolutism, and which is the cause of such a bitter culture war.  Many older people especially see the measure as a deliberate assault on their values: the bill might thus almost have been designed as a recruiting-sergeant for UKIP.  For this reason alone, Tory MPs should vote against the bill this evening in good heart.  They will certainly grasp that Ministers haven't a clue what the courts will do when they get to work on Equality Act challenges, and that the bill is consequently a threat to religious freedom.

19 May 2013 08:10:41

Lord Feldman should ring each Conservative Association Chairman to thank local activists for their work

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-05-19 at 08.05.37This weekend of the “mad, swivel-eyed loons” row will swiftly be followed by Commons debate on the same-sex marriage bill. Will Conservative MPs accept Lord Feldman's denial, view the incident as yet another instance of media irresponsbility, and look more sympathetically on the measure - on which David Cameron has staked part of his political reputation?  Or will the report only harden the opposition to it - since some will conclude, regardless of what they think of Lord Feldman's denial, that his words represent what Downing Street thinks anyway?

The answer will become clear over the next few days.  What is evident this morning, however, is that what Cabinet Ministers do and say about the bill will be watched very closely indeed.  The Sunday Telegraph confirms that Chris Grayling will support amendments that aim to protect people who work in the public sector and believe that marriage is between men and women - and that Owen Paterson and David Jones will oppose the bill at Third Reading.  The logical extension of Philip Hammond's pointed remarks on Question Time last week is that he should, too.

Continue reading "Lord Feldman should ring each Conservative Association Chairman to thank local activists for their work" »

18 May 2013 15:58:24

Party Chairman Lord Feldman denies calling Party members “mad, swivel-eyed loons”

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-05-18 at 15.33.25Andrew Feldman has issued a statement as follows: "There is speculation on the internet and on Twitter that the senior Conservative Party figure claimed to have made derogatory comments by the Times and the Telegraph is me. This is completely untrue. I would like to make it quite clear that I did not, nor have ever described our associations in this way or in any similar manner. I am taking legal advice."

The question that obviously follows is whether some other person with "strong social connections to the Prime Minister and close links to the party machine", as the Times (£) put it this morning, spoke the contested words.  This seems not to be the case, and Lord Feldman's statement confirms that he is indeed the man at the centre of this controversy.  I understand that a conversation between him and several lobby journalists took place at a dinner earlier this week.

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14 May 2013 07:40:03

A failure of leadership that leaves Cameron as a latter-day John Major

By Paul Goodman
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Cameron_as_MajorNEWDavid Cameron has promised an In-Out referendum on the EU in the next Parliament.  Why, then, do some of his backbenchers want a mandate referendum now, and still more of them want to write the In-Out referendum into law?  There is no simple answer, but a number of different factors have come together.  One is the passion that the EU has excited within the Conservative Party since Bruges.  Another is fear of UKIP.  Still another is the belief, common among Tory MPs, that Cameron is very unlikely to lead a majority Conservative Government after 2015.  But, above all perhaps, there is, at worst, a distrust of the Prime Minister over Europe and, at best, the conviction among Tory MPs that on the issue he will follow rather than lead.

Cameron's gambit yesterday evening was crafted to ward off accusations of followership after a day in which party debate over the Baron/Bone amendment to the Queen's Speech, and over the EU itself, threatened to run out of control.  The device of a Private Member's Bill is the best he can do to regain the initiative - since Nick Clegg will not concede a Government Bill, even on a free vote, and there is nothing the Prime Minister can do to master him, short of breaking up the Coalition altogether.  Such a Bill is unlikely to deliver the goods, since such measures are vulnerable to being talked out. Ed Miliband's main aim will be to obscure his party's own differences on the EU, and to out-manoevre Cameron when MPs vote in the Commons - in alliance, probably, with the Liberal Democrats.

Continue reading "A failure of leadership that leaves Cameron as a latter-day John Major" »

29 Apr 2013 20:52:29

It's No Surrender in Downing Street as Christopher Lockwood is recruited

By Paul Goodman
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"'Cause we made a promise we swore we'd always remember
No retreat, baby, no surrender
Blood brothers in the stormy night
With a vow to defend
No retreat, baby, no surrender"

Together with Daniel Finkelstein, Alice Thomson and Sarah Vine (Mrs Michael Gove) from the Times, Robert Hardman of the Daily Mail and Xan Smiley of his own journal, the Economist, Christopher Lockwood was identified last year by David Cameron as one of six close friends who are journalists.  As I write, parts of the lobby and commentariat are whooping it up about closed circles, public schoolboys, a chummocracy, Old Etonians, and all the rest of it - since James Forsyth has broken the news that Lockwood is leaving his post as the Economist's U.S Editor to join the Prime Minister's Policy Unit. The bright side, for those worried about this sort of thing, is that Lockwood is not an Old Etonian.  The less bright side, for the same lot, is that he was educated at St Paul's. I used to work with Lockwood at the Daily Telegraph, and remember him as quirky, funny, well-briefed, sometimes gloomy, always sharp - and highly intelligent.

He will do whatever he's asked to with distinction, though the fun poked at his appointment is entirely predictable.  So why has Cameron gone ahead?  Number 10 will argue that it is not a preserve of white privately-educated men, and cite Ameet Gill and Rohan Silva - as well as Gaby Bertin and Liz Sugg and Clare Foges.  Perhaps: but the Prime Minister clearly does a lot of his recruiting on the basis of friendship and trust - more so than George Osborne (who originally recruited Silva) or Boris Johnson (who tends to select on merit, on the whole with good results.) At any rate, I can't help considering this move alongside my recent experience of travelling with the Prime Minister while he campaigned for a day, mulling over Cameron's general impatience with some of his critics - and reading this as a No Surrender appointment.  The upside is that I don't read Lockwood as a man who will simply tell the Prime Minister what he wants to hear.

"'Cause we made a promise we swore we'd always remember
No retreat, baby, no surrender
Blood brothers in the stormy night
With a vow to defend
No retreat, baby, no surrender".

26 Apr 2013 06:15:33

A view from Downing Street

Screen shot 2013-04-25 at 23.38.09
By Paul Goodman

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I'm in a position to offer this morning to offer an insight into current thinking in Number 10.  Tim Montgomerie touched on its current charm offensive yesterday, of which the Jo Johnson appointment was a part.  I'm not going to comment on this thinking - though I will certainly return to the subject soon - but relay it as straightforwardly as I can.

  • Number 10 claims that it's in a better place with Conservative MPs.  First, it cites the appointment of Jo Johnson and the new policy board.  (And there are clearly more changes in Downing Street to come.)  Second, it says that the introduction of political Cabinets before Cabinet has given the Conservative operation a more political focus.  Third, it stresses the degree of contact between David Cameron and Tory backbenchers - regular gatherings of the Parliamentary Party (sometimes chaired by Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, and sometimes chaired by George Young the Chief Whip); repeated meetings with Ministers of State and with Under-Secretaries - every six weeks or so in the case of the latter, I was told; the Prime Minister's weekly trip to the members dining room after each PMQ session.  "No Conservative leader," I was told, "has done more to make himself available to Conservative MPs".

Continue reading "A view from Downing Street" »

25 Apr 2013 19:02:31

Well done, Jo Johnson – but, sadly, there aren't enough jobs for the rest of the 2010 intake

By Andrew Gimson
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How astute of David Cameron to make Jo Johnson the head of his policy unit, and to ask some other backbenchers to contribute to policy. As Tim Montgomerie noted here earlier today, the Prime Minister may at last be starting to get his Downing Street machine into shape.

The 2010 Tory intake is exceptionally gifted, which for the long-term health of the party, and of Parliament, is a very good thing. It is more than likely that the next or next-but-one leader of the Conservatives will be chosen from among these men and women of ability.

But, in the short term, it is very difficult to find enough for these newcomers to do. As an MP, it is easy to fill or overfill your time with engagements of small importance, but can be hard to find work of real significance. Westminster is full of men and women who have taken great trouble to get there, and discover on arrival that they do not matter at all.

Continue reading "Well done, Jo Johnson – but, sadly, there aren't enough jobs for the rest of the 2010 intake" »