The sun-capturing atrium of Portcullis House is no substitute for the Californian coast but it may at least help Steve Hilton acclimatise. He is now back from his year-long absence — though he is still dressed as if he is heading for the beach. It is a reminder of the inverted sartorial hierarchy of the Conservatives. The lowly MPs wear suits and ties. The party’s senior officers are resplendent in open necks. And anyone dressing as scruffily as Mr Hilton signals the status of three-star general.
There are precious few more reliable methods of working out who’s who in the Tory high command. David Cameron works with a semi-formalised network of relationships in which people’s official job titles give little idea of their true power. Major decisions can be taken at weekends and in the evenings, on an ad-hoc basis. Mr Hilton’s 3 a.m. emails from California were more than capable of sending the machine into nocturnal action. Shadow cabinet meetings are for briefing the troops, not the taking of decisions. It is a peculiar operation. But it works.
The Tory machine is powered by the personal chemistry within the team which masterminded Mr Cameron’s leadership campaign — mainly Mr Hilton and George Osborne, with a few others pitching in. This team has been transposed into the Tory hierarchy with only a few modifications. Andy Coulson, the communications chief, has been admitted to the inner sanctum and Andrew Feldman, an old friend of Mr Cameron, is chief executive of the party. The operation is run in a corner of Norman Shaw South, a building on the periphery of the parliamentary complex.
To visit Norman Shaw South is to see a political machine whirring beautifully. It is like a British version of The West Wing: the key players walking in and out of their rooms and having 45-second impromptu meetings in the corridor. The Cameroon nerve centre was described to me by one shadow minister as a nest of ‘the wonks, the pros and the pretties’. He means policy specialists, career politicians and Tamzin Lightwater-style female aides who strike MPs as being suspiciously presentable.
If Mr Hilton had not been so useful, he would not have dared to take a year out in California. In fact, his absence has served to reinforce his importance. During his visits to London, the whole machine (most Tory staff are in a separate office, half a mile away) would become energised. His style is to produce, say, a dozen ideas of which two will be durable. While this can be tiresome for the Conservative officials who work on the ten redundant ones, Mr Cameron considers it a worthwhile process.
The question facing them all now is how to transpose this to government. Mr Coulson and Mr Hilton will move into Number 10 — but Mr Osborne’s future position in the network is less clear. Chancellors normally take up residence in the Treasury, which, of course, has an entirely separate staff and culture to Number 10. This suited Gordon Brown, who ran his own team even in opposition and would convene them in hotel rooms to keep them away from the Blairites. But Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne share staff, ideas, soundbites, weekends, everything. Their relationship is now, as it was during the leadership contest, totally collaborative.
The extent of Mr Osborne’s importance to the Cameroon project was revealed this week in a report by Conservative Intelligence, a new group headed by Tim Montgomerie, founder of the influential conservativehome.com website. A former Tory staffer himself, he spoke to 50 of the party’s key players in order to produce a diagram of where power lies (the report is available at www.conservativeintelligence.com). Mr Osborne’s name was mentioned to him far more often than that of Mr Cameron himself. On an operational basis, all roads do seem to lead to the shadow chancellor’s office.
Osborne’s other jobs include that of general election co-ordinator, which means he has accrued many powers previously held by the party chairman. He is also de facto policy chief — Oliver Letwin, who holds the title nominally, is regarded as a backstop sage, the wise Gandalf of the operation rather than the man in charge. The shadow chancellor devolves much of the finance brief to Philip Hammond, who would be an extremely powerful minister.
Yet if the Tories do indeed win the election, Mr Osborne will, under conventional Whitehall arrangements, be stuck in the Treasury, away from the bustling corridors of the Cameroon operation in Number 10. So plans are afoot to keep Mr Osborne’s yin united with Mr Cameron’s yang. This would require the rewiring of the system — but the power to do so is well within the prerogative of a new government. Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, is already holding talks with the Tories under the normal pre-election protocol, and he has been asked to find a way to have a joint headquarters, where Dave and George can continue to share staff and ideas as they do now.
This proposal — for a Number 101/2 Downing Street — is in its infancy and is being kept tightly under wraps. Mr Cameron is nervy about anything which might give the impression that he is complacent about victory, and he has decided not to confirm or deny anything about transition talks. He regards the subject as absolutely toxic, and rather foolishly denied on Monday that any negotiations are taking place about ‘who sits where’. As he well knows, there is plenty of this sort of discussion: including plans for a Department of Social Justice and even the suggestion that Mr Letwin might head the Department of Climate Change.
At present, the focus is on how to transfer the Norman Shaw South gang into government — rather than how to integrate the rest of the party into the broader machine. This, frankly, is the greater challenge. ‘If you don’t work there, you don’t count,’ explains one grumpy backbencher. ‘And if you’re not in the shadow cabinet, you don’t exist.’ Many Tory MPs are still sore about the expenses fiasco, which they believed was exploited by Mr Cameron to purge faces that did not fit. Summer drinks events are being planned to repair relations, but there is still much work to do.
These are the problems of power. It was not so long ago that the Tories were eating out of Mr Cameron’s hand, refusing even to rebel over tax cuts when — as it happened — he desperately wanted to stage a fight on this terrain. Now, MPs have adjusted to the expectation of victory and want to know what is in it for them. Who sits where is suddenly a matter of great importance. Office — even the expectation of office — brings its own distinct headaches. And much as they may irritate Mr Cameron, such headaches are here to stay.