It is a story that could have been scripted to boost morale in Conservative headquarters. At five o’clock one morning, security guards at 10 Downing Street were called in to intercept an intruder only to find the Prime Minister trying to enter his own office. Apart from the delicious image this conjures of Gordon Brown in his pyjamas, cursing as he bashes in the security code, it caricatures him as the ideal political opponent. An inept, flailing control freak, whose own shortcomings will lose Labour the next election.
Alas for the Tories, this story is several months out of date. It took place in the earliest days of the Brown premiership, when he had no home access to the Prime Minister’s computer, forcing him to sneak downstairs to the office. Much has changed since then and the latest developments are, for the Tories, no laughing matter. The PM is building an increasingly professional team in No. 10 — and, more importantly, learning to trust it. What is more, the new Brown operation strikes a formidable contrast with Tory head office.
The crunch came at the end of last year, when Mr Brown realised that his plan to run No. 10 using former Treasury officials and Brownite apparatchiks had failed. The evidence was, by then, piled high, with Northern Rock at the top. So he sent Tom Scholar, his chief of staff, back to the Treasury and hired Stephen Carter, an outsider with an extraordinary CV. In the past ten years alone he has run J. Walter Thompson UK, the advertising firm, NTL (now known as Virgin Media), the regulator Ofcom, and Brunswick, the stellar public relations agency.
So Mr Carter is, to put it mildly, one of the more capable men wandering around Whitehall. Even the most paranoid Prime Minister could trust his abilities — which Mr Brown is doing. The PM no longer takes part in the No. 10 early morning conference call — ceding the floor to Mr Carter, who works in tandem with Jeremy Heywood, brought back from Morgan Stanley to the new post of permanent secretary at No. 10. Those who overhear their conversations with Mr Brown say that phrases like ‘It’s OK, we’ll fix it’ are common. Amazingly, Gordon is slowly letting go.
Two recruits have joined No. 10 in the last week. One is Jennifer Moses, a former Goldman Sachs managing director and former head of CentreForum, a (surprisingly good) Liberal Democrat think-tank. Just last month she wrote a spirited article blaming Mr Brown’s benefits system for ‘huge financial disincentives to move from welfare to work’. Her new home is the No. 10 policy unit. She will soon be joined by David Muir, one of the most respected figures in the world of new media and advertising, who ran a division of the WPP empire and has co-authored a well-received book, The Business of Brands.
Any venture capital firm would be delighted with such a team of turnaround specialists. Yet what is striking about Mr Brown’s new recruits is that there is hardly a Labour party membership card among them: these are not the fanatical Brownite guerrillas of New Labour Mark One. Mr Carter has no ideological bent and Mr Heywood is considered a natural conservative. It is as if Brown Inc. were a company facing a hostile takeover, advised by Goldmans to hire a new management team. A common technique in the City, and in American politics — but not in Westminster.
So it is futile to argue, as many Conservatives still do, that nothing of any substance is happening in 10 Downing Street and that Mr Brown is a rather large Scottish bunny frozen in the headlights. He has a new machine, fundamentally different to that which so spectacularly mishandled the botched election-that-never-was and Northern Rock. The orderly Cabinet reshuffle which followed Peter Hain’s resignation and last week’s well-received welfare reform plans give a better taste of what the Tories might expect from now on.
The Conservative operation now perched in Labour’s old home of Millbank contains no former Goldman Sachs partners or chiefs. Indeed, one is hard-pushed to find many with experience of the 2001 election campaign, let alone wider industry. It is also losing, rather than attracting, stars. Oliver Dowden, Richard Hardyment and George Bridges have drifted away in recent months — all bright young men who, for whatever reason, did not see their future with the Tories.
Those who remain grumble about lack of direction. Caroline Spelman, the party chairman, is regarded as a cipher, and there is no chief of staff figure running Central Office in the way Lord Ashcroft leads his marginal seat team. There are few veterans of old campaigns and one staffer says the building lacks ‘institutional memory’. There is a feeling of being dragged into a succession of short-term battles with no central narrative, or mission, established.
Take, for example, Mr Cameron’s pledge last month to clear parks of teenage gangs so children are better able to play outside. This was inspired not to highlight any principle, but by an internal polling presentation from Lord Ashcroft showing that Mr Cameron is losing the support of mothers. More proposals, on subjects like maternity leave, are on the way. Prisons on Monday, defence on Tuesday — the party hops from one topic to another with little time taken to hammer any point home.
‘You can get it if you really want’ runs the current Tory advertising slogan. But get what? The problem is not that Mr Cameron has no answer. The problem is that he has about a dozen — and cannot narrow them down. Many of his policies, such as welfare reform, are radical and urgently needed. Some are worth casting a Tory vote just to see them enacted, such as Michael Gove’s promise of school reform. But no policy has yet been explained in a way the ordinary voter can understand.
Yet the successes of Team Cameron have been profound. Intellectual headway since the Blackpool conference has been remarkable and the Tory press operation outguns the government so often that ministers are whingeing to (and on) the BBC. Yet without a palpable core message or strategy, such as the Stepping Stones document Thatcher commissioned in opposition, progress will inevitably be limited. ‘It’s like the Somme in 1916,’ says a shadow cabinet member. ‘We’re fighting all out, all the time, and we gain a little bit of ground. They fight back, win a little territory back. Neither of us is getting far.’
A 57-year-old man may not change his personality, but he will change his tactics if he believes the old ones are leading him to oblivion. Of course Mr Brown’s new team may yet collapse and lose confidence. They may tire of him, or vice versa. The Prime Minister is a recovering control freak on a 12-step rehabilitation plan, and could relapse at any time. But the Tories should focus on a just as likely outcome: that his plan works. And that the enemy so many MPs had written off may become stronger than ever before.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 8, 2008