David Cameron really must do something about the quality of the Conservatives’ leaked documents. Once they offered delicious details of the infighting and reprisals which occupied the party for more than a decade. Yet the leaked memo which emerged last Friday simply warned that the party cannot ‘sit back and let Gordon Brown self-destruct’ and must be ‘as radical in social reform as Mrs Thatcher was in economic reform’. On first glance, utterly unnewsworthy. But on a wider level, it suggests a significant shift in ambition.
Radicalism is a relatively new idea for Mr Cameron. His initial strategy was to minimise the difference with Labour, making the leap as small as possible for wavering voters. His main promise would be to rid England of Gordon Brown, a proposition which the opinion polls show to be wildly popular. Only now that victory seems secure does the opportunity for bolder Thatcher-style radicalism present itself.
This is perhaps why the definitive account of the start of the Thatcher revolution — Just In Time by Sir John Hoskyns — has found its way to the bookshelves of some of the more radical-minded Cameroons. The memoirs detail the struggle of Hoskyns, a businessman, brought in to shatter the political consensus and make the case for radical change. ‘It is not difficult to carry the country,’ Angus Maude told him at the time. ‘The problem is the shadow Cabinet.’
A generation later and it is the late Lord Maude’s son, Francis, who is running Mr Cameron’s answer to the Hoskyns group. Named the Implementation Team, it is designed to address the lack of experience on Mr Cameron’s front bench by assigning each shadow Cabinet member with two ‘mentors’ — one from the business world, and one from the civil service. The intention is to offer advice on practicalities and identify any Whitehall elephant traps that may lie in wait.
Official lines of communication between shadow Cabinet members and their would-be Whitehall departments open in December, but Mr Cameron cannot wait that long. He is haunted by the prospect that he, like Tony Blair, may end up squandering the political capital of an election victory. So he has quietly told his five most senior frontbenchers they will not be moved in any pre-election reshuffle and asked them to start planning for power now.
Mr Maude’s Implementation Team has adopted Eisenhower’s motto: plans are nothing, planning is everything. Nicholas Boles intends to rejoin the team in the summer when he stands down as Boris Johnson’s chief of staff. They plan to operate quietly, issue no documents and ruffle few feathers. Yet there is already disgruntlement. If Mr Cameron wants radicalism, it is argued, the last thing he needs is an influx of civil servants who specialise in finding a difficulty for every solution.
The businessmen are proving rather hard to get hold of, but there is no shortage of help from Blair-era advisers. Sir Michael Barber, former head of Mr Blair’s delivery unit, has been generous with his time, as has Matthew Taylor, who used to run the Number 10 policy unit. A former Blair adviser is now working full-time on the Implementation Team. The joke among the orphaned Blairites is that if half a dozen of them embed with the Tories, they could retake power — meeting Mr Blair at his Connaught Square home for weekly instructions.
The ease with which they slot into Project Cameron is readily explained. The Blair ‘choice’ agenda has mutated into the Cameron ‘empowerment’ agenda. Phil Collins, Mr Blair’s former speechwriter, observed recently that the key dividing line in politics is ‘no longer between left and right’ but ‘between liberal and authoritarian’. The Blairites-for-Cameron can argue, with some justification, that they are fighting for the same cause. And, in Mr Brown, the same enemy.
The supply of experienced Blairite talent is a boon for Mr Cameron, because he is having a hard time finding any Conservatives. As if in a British version of Atlas Shrugged, his most talented people have been disappearing one by one. Danny Kruger, his chief speechwriter, has resigned to work for a charity. Steve Hilton, his chief strategist, has left to work from California for six months, accompanying his partner on a posting to Silicon Valley. Barely a week passes without another Tory staffer being poached by a lobbying company preparing for a change of government.
This unnerves the more thoughtful Cameroons. They are at most two years away from near-certain power, so the flow of human traffic should be in the other direction. There are grumbles about lack of direction, and complaints that power is held in a clique. It does not help that the Cameron operation is based in the Norman Shaw buildings, 15 minutes’ walk away from the Conservative party headquarters in Millbank. Many staffers at Millbank believe that the geographical split reflects the distribution of power. ‘There is a sense that the real action is taking place somewhere else,’ I am told.
The party will always lose a bidding war to lobbying firms: the outside world has long offered a premium to Westminster salaries. But faith in the mission is the adhesive which normally sticks good people to low-paid political jobs. More of this adhesive is needed in Project Cameron. ‘There is a sense of mission, in that they want to win,’ says a recently poached employee. ‘But if you’d ask me how a Conservative government would make a noticeable difference to Britain, I’m not sure I could answer.’
The irony is that Mr Cameron has no end of answers. He believes that Tory education reforms will end the scandal of sink schools and restart social mobility, that his welfare reform will tackle the scourge of Labour’s benefit ghettos and heal the broken society, that the next election will be a once-in-a-generation change — not about transferring power from Labour to Tory but from the state to the people. But for a message to get through to the country, it must first get through to his staff.
Thanks to Mr Cameron’s extraordinary transformation of the party (and Labour’s no less extraordinary self-destruction) it is unlikely that he will lose the next election. This in itself is an incredible achievement. But his choice now is between leading a pedestrian government that wins by default or a radical government that wins by acclaim. If he seeks the latter, as the leaked memo suggests, then his work has barely begun.