David Cameron needs a Willie. So say the ministers who work most closely with No. 10. It is not a call for shock-and-awe radicalism, but for someone who can help the Prime Minister as the late Willie Whitelaw helped Margaret Thatcher — gliding around Whitehall, pushing forward the Cameron agenda, smoothing over difficulties and ensuring that Downing Street’s writ runs in every department.
Whitelaw did the job superbly for eight years; it is no coincidence that things started to go wrong for Lady Thatcher after a stroke forced him to give up his role. But Cameron doesn’t have a Willie. He has the opposite of a Willie: a Deputy Prime Minister who has his own interests to look after, his own policies to pursue and his own party to lead.
Coalition has made this arrangement a necessity. But it does make life that much more difficult for Cameron. As one minister observes, ‘It is a function of coalition government that the Prime Minister doesn’t have an enforcer as his deputy but someone with their own agenda.’
For ministers pushing policies close to Cameron’s heart, Nick Clegg’s office isn’t a source of support; they see it, they tell me, as just another hurdle to clear. Understandably, the Deputy Prime Minister’s concern is not that Cameron’s priorities are enacted, but that the Liberal Democrats extract as much as they can from any deal.
The problems of coalition are even more visible at the Treasury. Traditionally, the Chief Secretary acts as the axeman. He calls in ministers from spending departments and threatens to do the most terrible things to their budgets. But a spending review is under way at the moment — a particularly sensitive one, for 2015/16, which will make its effects felt just before the next general election — and this time the process has been inverted. Danny Alexander is busy defending the welfare budget from its secretary of state.
Before the autumn statement, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne agreed £10 billion in welfare cuts, which would have avoided the need for greater bloodshed in other departments. The Liberal Democrats argued it down to £3.6 billion. Alexander — as a loyal Lib Dem, but in defiance of his role as Chief Secretary — is loudly declaring that there’ll be no more help from the welfare budget for departments in -distress.
It is irritation at this state of affairs which drives the actions of the Tory branch of the National Union of Ministers. The Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, whom nobody could accuse of being a wet, set out the position this weekend. Taking half a per cent off welfare, he argued, would be enough to balance his books. There was, he said, a body of opinion in Cabinet that wanted the welfare settlement reopened.
Hammond’s intervention was all the more striking because he is not a boat-rocker. You might almost think it was licensed. But no — at least, not explicitly. One person privy to conversations between Hammond and the Tory leadership tells me that the Defence Secretary ‘knows the PM and the Chancellor welcome the pressure on the welfare budget’. But it wasn’t so much an approved statement as a case of ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent welfare budget?’
There’s no doubt that Osborne is frustrated. One ally of his says, ‘In a single-party government, we’d go back to welfare. It is the single biggest block to making the sums add up.’
To be fair to Alexander, he has tried to fulfil the traditional Chief Secretary role as much as possible — but it was making his position inside the Lib Dems untenable. He has had to pull back. Shortly before having to leave Cabinet, Chris Huhne was soliciting support for Alexander’s removal from the coalition’s decision-making body, the Quad, on the grounds that he gave the Treasury too much influence.
Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, is so convinced that the parties can’t agree that he has suggested simply keeping the old plans, and leaving what happens after May 2015 to the new government following the election. But the Chancellor won’t have that. He needs to reassure the markets that there’s a coherent, long-term plan — and he needs baseline figures against which to measure Labour’s proposals, and attack them for raising taxes or borrowing.
Now, there’s a limit to how much No. 10 and No. 11 can expect to fix all this. Conflicting priorities are unavoidable in coalitions. Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander can’t be expected to be loyal servants to the agenda of another party. But Cameron could do more to ensure that the Tory part of the coalition sings off his hymnsheet.
Oliver Letwin, the Prime Minister’s minister for policy, is the nearest thing he has to a co-ordinating figure. But Letwin is the most genial of politicians — not temperamentally suited to being an enforcer. As one minister notes, ‘Oliver thinks hard about policy. But this is more about getting people to do things for you.’ Besides, a friend points out, ‘Oliver is already wildly overloaded.’ He also gave the go-ahead to the NHS reforms, with the result that Osborne now harbours grave doubts about his political foresight.
William Hague, who numbers First Secretary of State among his titles, sometimes acts as Cameron’s consigliere. In many ways, he’s ideal — a respected former leader with no ambitions of his own. But as Foreign Secretary he is out of the country too often to do the job on a regular basis.
The worst of it is that Cameron had a fixer, once: Andrew MacKay. MacKay, who did the job for him in opposition, first became an MP in 1977. His wife was a Tory MP, too. He had the most finely tuned antennae in parliament, and velvet-gloved manners with just the right hint of iron fist. He kept the leader up to date with backbench opinion; sorted out problems before they reached the shadow cabinet table. But he had to leave the Commons after the expenses scandal.
Tories can’t expect Clegg to become the Prime Minister’s Willie. But Cameron should find one for his part of the coalition. A Tory Willie would be better than no Willie at all.