I am taken to task by CoffeeHousers for praising Brown’s new team– or, as CS rather wonderfully puts it, “making cow eyes at the latest set of rentaquote spivs”. Have I gone native in a Westminster village that confuses spinners with real people? John says I’m too close to the story: outsiders should not be hired in British politics. After indulging me with that 2,400-word extended version of my political column, here’s a rather prolix reply.
First, CS, I have done a few blogs saying Team Brown is getting better because I have found this to be the case. Simple as that. Labour’s attack machine is sharper. Twice now I have learned about a Cameron press conference from a Labour Party email getting their attack lines in first. Compare this to their October mess where they failed to take apart Osborne’s questionable figures on non dom tax until papers had gone to bed at 7pm. We’re dealing with a different beast. It is, in my view, a hugely significant development.
Now, to those rentaquote spivs. Peter Oborne deals with this brilliantly in his book The Triumph of the Political Class. He spoke of politicos who had never run anything larger than a raffle, whose only skill is toadying up to people and sounding good on TV. These talentless frauds, he said, now run the government. But here is what I regard as a crucial difference: the type Brown is recruiting emphatically do not belong to that category.
How many civil servants would be appointed to run Morgan Stanley's UK investment banking division, as Jeremy Heywood was before he was poached back to be perm sec at No10? Does anyone think Jennifer Moses became a Goldman Sachs partner because she’s pretty or chatty? (And she’s an important enough figure in public policy to have Gove quoting her supportively in the Commons a while back) Spivs do not become chief executive of Virgin Media group, as Carter was (when it was called NTL). Sure, Carter ended up as CEO of Brunswick – but Brunswick is no tin-pot operation. Brunswick were the bane of my life as a business hack because they were, and are, so ruthlessly effective. It’s perhaps the best financial PR agency in Britain, which is why the mop up FTSE100 contracts and are hired by distressed companies facing hostile takeover bids (a situation eerily familiar to that Brown faced around Christmas). When I swapped business for political journalism, I was amazed at how bad the spin is in Westminster. Amateurish, clannish, bitchy, lazy, inaccurate, “either for us or against us” spin. They should hire Brunswick, I joked to myself. Now, Brown’s done exactly that.
And as for Ms Moses – I have to inform Chuck and RW that reports of her resignation are exaggerated. She cleared her desk at Centre Forum yesterday and has already been in No10 sorting out her desk and contracts. She starts on Monday on the No10 Policy Unit. To continue my West Wing metaphor, she is the Ainsley Hayes – someone who disagrees with Brown (on City Academy dilution and welfare incentives) but has been invited to work in No10. Presumably in something better than the basement that Leo allocated to Ainsley.
Finally, a point none of you will like. I have long believed there are too few special advisers in government, not too many. It’s true the UK system relies on civil servants, but it’s a huge fault. That’s why nothing changes and the bureaucratic system just gets fatter. I’d like the entire Cabinet to be appointed from outside, so we may (for example) get the health service run by someone who knows something about health. Brown is doing the right thing, and I hope Cameron follows with at least twice the number of political appointees. When I was in the Swedish PM’s office the other week, an official told me there are 400 political appointees in that tiny government. He laughed when I expressed surprise. How else, he said, could they have wrested control of education from the civil service and enacted the school voucher system?
Yes, EyeSee, the taxpayer is funding all this. But not all. Moses made so much at Goldmans she’s working for free (like Sue Nye, Brown’s gatekeeper, whose husband is also a Goldmans squillionaire). Carter is on about £120,000 – down from about £1m at Brunswick. Heywood is a permanent secretary. So it is not as if Brown’s stuffing their pockets with gold. CS says bringing folk from the outside hasn’t worked well in Britain. That’s because it’s not enough to have just one man at the top – they need to bring underlings in from outside to run the system. And SJH, my "gents" I was simply referring to the gender of the above commentators! For reasons passing my understanding (which Iain Dale explored once) it’s mostly blokes in the blogosphere.
Anyway, to assure you all – my very low opinion of Brown has not changed one bit. I regard him as a chancer whose skill lies in not being found out, and price of his failings is paid by those who languish in Britain’s welfare ghettos. I am entirely open to the idea that this could backfire horribly - Brown is, as I said originally, a recovering control freak who can relapse at any time.
But what we try to do in CoffeeHouse is call it as we see it – that means criticising Cameron when he messes up, and pointing out Brown's better decisions. The machine matters in politics, as well as the ideas – something I wish Tories would realise more than they appear to. I would be providing a pretty dire service to you lot if I took the view that “I don’t like Brown, therefore his No 10 operation must be abysmal.” If the Tories take this view (and too many do) then their battle will be over before it began.