James Forsyth

Politics: Cameron and the civil service coup

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There is a split in the Cameron circle. The divide is between those who think that the problems of the past few weeks have been a blip, one that will end when Boris Johnson wins in London, and those — including some of the Prime Minister’s closest friends — who fear the problems are symptoms of a disease that could cripple the government. At stake in this debate is the future strategic direction, and the potential success, of the Cameron project.

The Prime Minister, ever the optimist, is in the first camp. He is inclined to think that he is experiencing a normal bout of mid-term turbulence. But some of his closest and oldest political allies are preparing to persuade him that his problems are the result of structural defects in his government. He must act now, they argue, to avoid being thrown back into crisis mode in June, when he has to appear before the Leveson inquiry and talk publicly about a host of things that he would rather the nation forgot.

Those who wish Cameron to change are advocating a clear course of action. They want the Prime Minister to be clear about what he stands for, and restore a sense of mission which they feel is lacking. They worry that he is content to present himself merely as a manager, rather than a leader, determined to improve the country he presides over. A man on a mission can be forgiven the odd slip, but an administrator cannot. A clear agenda would also give Cameron a political base, a group who would stick with him through thick and thin.

Next, Cameron’s reforming friends want to see Downing Street become much more political. They maintain that many of the mistakes of recent weeks can be chalked up to the fact that there are not enough people in Downing Street doing political proof-reading. As one points out to me, if there were enough people to concentrate properly on details, they would have stamped on the so-called ‘conservatory tax’ long before it went out to consultation.

As things stand, when you discount those who are dealing with specific issues like by-elections or the political events in Cameron’s diary, there are really only two people looking after all that: Patrick Rock and Oliver Dowden. Their respective specialities are policy and troubleshooting. Both are highly regarded. Rock was, along with David Cameron, one of Michael Howard’s special advisers when he was Home Secretary; and Dowden is frequently tipped as a future Conservative Cabinet minister. They could still do with more help, however.

This problem has been compounded by Cameron’s extraordinary decision to relinquish political control of the policy unit, and let it be staffed by the civil service. Cameron was persuaded to do this by Jeremy Heywood, who is now the Cabinet Secretary, and who is firmly against the recruitment of more political appointees. They complicate things, he argues, and undermine the role of junior ministers when sent to government departments. To Heywood, the definition of ‘political’ is a policy which both the Tories and Lib Dems can agree on. Heywood also maintains that coalition makes political appointees even more problematic. If Cameron hires Tories for his political policy unit, Nick Clegg would have to hire Liberal Democrats too — and the coalition would have two warring ideas factories. Cameron has accepted this logic. The Prime Minister also, I’m told, believed that a civil servant-run policy unit would be able to recruit better people. He frequently frets that there are not enough high-quality Tories to fill his Downing Street.

Initially, few in Downing Street grasped the significance of Heywood’s coup. With typical cunning, the Cabinet Secretary brought in someone the Tories knew and trusted — Paul Kirby — to run his policy unit. The fact that it was under the charge of someone who had worked with George Osborne in opposition meant that few of them appreciated how much it would mean to lose control of the policy unit. But Kirby is a civil servant now, and has banned Tory political appointees from policy unit meetings. In yet another example of how civil servants have used coalition to bolster the position of the permanent bureaucracy, Kirby says that, if he let in Cameron’s advisers, he would have to extend the same courtesy to Clegg’s.

The current set-up is also causing tensions between No. 10 and the Tory-run departments. The special advisers in such departments complain with increasing frequency that the technocratic ideas proposed by the policy unit often contradict what they and their ministers are trying to do; that the government, as a whole, lacks coherence – and that voters are beginning to notice. In the plan being discussed by the reformers, Cameron would bring a whole tranche of new political people into Downing Street. They argue that if Cameron is worried about the cost, he can simply replace civil servants with special advisers. It would stop what is a creeping technocratic coup, and restore to the government its missing sense of mission. As Prime Minister, Cameron has complete authority to make such changes. The question is whether he has the guts.

Those advising him to be radical worry that he does not. George Osborne, who in many ways runs the Downing Street political operation, has apparently not grasped how badly reinforcements are needed. One Tory says this is because he spends most of his day in No. 11, where he is surrounded by his hand-picked team of special advisers, rather than in No. 10. Ed Llewellyn, Cameron’s longstanding chief of staff, rejects most of the criticisms of the civil service.

Throughout his leadership of the Tory party, Cameron’s saving grace has been that he’s managed to change direction just before it’s too late. At the moment, though, he does not appear to be in the mood for doing that. One confidant says, ‘He doesn’t think there’s an existential threat to his premiership. It takes a lot to shake him out of his complacency.’ Cameron is used to having his critics talk this way, but when his friends join in then he ought to take notice. There are, after all, only a certain amount of mistakes and U-turns that a government can survive before it loses its most valuable asset: credibility.

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is Political Editor of the Spectator. He is also a columnist in The Sun.

Topics in this articlePolitics