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The Number 10 Vacuum

Last Updated: Friday, May 25th, 2012

Three men mattered to Cameron in opposition: Andy Coulson, Steve Hilton and George Osborne. Together they formed the Tory Quad before there was a Coalition Quad.

Andy Coulson was the guy who fixed things for Cameron. He banged heads together. Kept the press happy. Calmed things down. He’s gone.

Hilton was the guy who had one hundred impossible thoughts before breakfast. The Big Society and transparency guru drove Cameron’s change agenda. He left last week in a blaze of angry briefings. For Bruce Anderson it was good riddance (http://conho.me/JfmRxN) but for the more radical of ministers he was their number one ally.

George Osborne is, of course, still at Cameron’s side but one Downing Street insider noted this week that it has felt that he has been absent too. He has been relatively quiet at staff and Cabinet meetings. The tiggerish enthusiasm that he brought to every cause is slowly returning but Osborne still hasn’t recovered all of his bounce. He was badly affected by the reaction to his Budget and, as revealed on ConHome this morning (http://conho.me/KT3BWL), he felt undermined by the fact that his desire for a cut in the top rate of income tax to 40p was rejected and, worst of all, rejected at a meeting he didn’t even attend. Since the beginning of the Cameron project he took the big decisions with the Conservative leader. On this occasion Cameron took the decision with Clegg on a matter within the Chancellor’s portfolio and central to his conception of a growth strategy. It hurt and it hurt more than the pasty, granny and charity etc tax controversies.

Cameron has therefore had to navigate the last few very difficult months without the usual help. He sits in Downing Street surrounded by civil servants and his Praetorian Guard – a female-heavy Guard that serves him faithfully but a little too deferentially and who have never been big on political direction or strategy.

Two things matter over the coming months. The first is obvious and on the front of every newspaper – what will happen to the €urozone and how will the Coalition react? Not my topic for today. The second question concerns ‘Inner Team Cameron’. It’s only a week until the nation is overtaken by ‘Jublympics fever’. That’s certainly what the Government hopes. It desperately needs a time to pause, stock-take, regroup and relaunch. Cameron needs to fill the vacuum that is otherwise known as his Number 10 operation.

It’s not just Hilton and Coulson who’ve gone. Cameron’s former head of policy James O’Shaugnessy has resigned. The guy who was the bridge between Hilton and Coulson when they were the ying and the yang, Tim Chatwin, has gone to work for Google. Last night Cameron bade farewell to the brilliant man who ran his press lobby operation, Henry Macrory. My guess is that by the end of year two of Rohan Silva (Hilton’s partner in zeitgeistery), Andrew Cooper (pollster and strategist) and Julian Glover (only recently appointed speechwriter) will also have gone. It’s not impossible that all three will have gone.

This is extraordinary and the absence of political all-stars has left Number 10 hugely under-powered. It needn’t be like this. Cameron should have Danny Finkelstein or Neil O’Brien – both brilliant minds – running his policy operation. George Bridges or Matthew Elliott should be rebuilding relations with conservative columnists and opinion-formers. Edward Timpson should be his PPS, connecting the Number 10 bunker with an unhappy (and bored*) parliamentary party. Ian Birrell should be his Chief of Staff. Danny Kruger should be recalled to be his speechwriter. It is politically criminal that these people aren’t at Cameron’s side already, helping his government to be as good as it should be. Hopefully sometime before the last gold medal has been hung around an Olympian’s neck a lot of these people – or people not unlike them – will be working away behind Britain’s most famous front door.

* A big subject for a future Intelligence Letter.

By Tim Montgomerie

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Osborne wanted top rate of income tax cut to 40p: “Although the Chancellor was over-ruled he has publicly defended a cut that he privately argued was a fudge and half-measure. He had argued his case long and hard behind-the-scenes but had had to accept that the HMRC’s own Laffer curve analysis – that became available one week before the Budget – suggested that 45p was, perhaps, the revenue-maximising rate. Osborne argued that the economic impact of the top rate of tax should not be confined to revenue considerations but Clegg was insistent. It had to be 45p and it may now be 45p for many years to come.” More via http://conho.me/KT3BWL

An EU referendum could split the Tory Party: “The only referendum on Europe that has taken place in Britain had vast medium-term political consequences.  The divisions in Labour which it exposed took radical form in scarcely more than five years – when part of Labour’s pro-EU wing broke away to form the SDP. Mr Farage surely envisages a similar process in the event of an In-Out referendum, whereby the centre-right of the Conservative Party and UKIP are eventually welded together to form a new right-wing force.” More via http://conho.me/MrsQlf

Osborne should establish a long-term commission to examine the ideal scope of the state: “The Government needs some political cover – some voices that spell out the choices if Britain is to pay its way.  I have suggested an affordable spending commission, on which would sit big hitters from all parties and none.  Nigel Lawson, Norman Lamont, Alan Milburn, Frank Field, Mr Heath himself (Allister, not Ted).  And so on. Another person who recommends himself is James Purnell, the former Labour Work and Pensions Secretary.  Read his Times (£) piece (http://conho.me/LhFioo) if you’re allowed behind the paywall.  “Someone,” he wrote, “needs to give Britain a new idea of itself that it can afford”. The Government has an opportunity to score an open goal by asking Mr Purnell and others to sit on such a commission.  I appreciate that it’s been more inclined recently to wallop the ball over the bar or past the post, not to mention into its own net, but hope springs eternal.” More via http://conho.me/KfYpiL

IN BRIEF:

  • Forget Plan A or B, it’s time for Plan E for Economic Emergency – http://conho.me/Ma9dOs
  • 51% of Tories support withdrawal from the European Union – and 26% would consider voting UKIP – http://conho.me/Ky3lyJ
  • Mark Prisk MP: Ours is the largest deregulatory package of any Government in my lifetime – http://conho.me/LuVWwR
  • Ed Davey MP: More low carbon electricity and no public nuclear subsidies – the aims of today’s draft Energy Bill – http://conho.me/JJ0Q8V
  • Sam Gyimah MP: Relaxing labour regulations is only one part of the package to create jobs – http://conho.me/JhzS8T
  • 

By Tim Montgomerie

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