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Tim Montgomerie – Inside the New 10 Downing Street

Last Updated: Thursday, February 24th, 2011


The most famous door in the world may be unchanged but behind the iconic Number 10 Downing Street a significantly overhauled operation is being built.

New policy and press units are being put together and David Cameron also has a new head of strategy.

The changes are designed to help the Prime Minister achieve three main goals:

    Force Whitehall to focus on the Coalition’s agenda.

  • An analysis of papers sent to Downing Street and the Cabinet Office has revealed that just 40% are directly related to the Coalition’s programme. Roughly 30% come from the Whitehall bureaucracy and another 30% from the EU.
  • Communication of big themes that no single Whitehall department owns.

  • The Downing Street press team will take charge of pushing cross-cutting themes including the Big Society, the family and, in particular, public service reform. There will also be a bigger capacity to help individual departments when big issues like forestry privatisation and tution fees blow up.
  • An ability to rise above the day-to-day and achieve a longer-term strategic clarity

  • Andrew Cooper, the new Director of Political Strategy, will be responsible for ensuring the PM hits long-term political goals.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Downing Street has taken the opportunity of Andy Coulson’s departure to undertake a substantial restructuring because many of the changes – not least the policy unit – have been in gestation for some time. The new press operation – merging the Cabinet Office and Number 10 units – is actually Coulson’s project. Nonetheless Mr Coulson’s exit has given certain individuals, notably Steve Hilton, a new freedom to impose their views on party direction and strategy.

The new Policy Unit is probably the most important change.

For three decades Downing Street has had a substantial policy unit and it was always odd that David Cameron started with only a handful of policy advisors. Gordon Brown’s unit was staffed almost entirely by political advisers (SpAds) and they, naturally, left with him. Ten months into the Coalition government Cameron is determined to keep his promise to reduce the overall number of SpAds and that is why the new Policy Unit will be staffed by civil servants. The Unit will be overseen by Paul Kirby. Kirby was very much a George Osborne pick. Osborne, who continues to attend all key Downing Street meetings and remains by far the most important man inside the Conservative Party alongside Cameron, came to rely on Kirby when he spent a year with him on secondment from KPMG. He left Osborne’s office two months before the election but, in that time, he developed the cut-Whitehall-by-one-third policy and won a reputation for his knowledge of how central and local government worked. One senior Downing Street aide told me that Kirby and the Policy Unit will help to ensure that no assertion from the public sector bureaucracy is taken for granted. If a civil servant attempts to mislead ministers or the PM’s advisers the Kirby unit has a network of contacts and experience to gain authoritative second opinions. Our aim, my source says, will be to ensure the PM is always the best-briefed person in any strategic discussion. Cameron and Clegg have interviewed all of the eight key appointments to the Unit (three of whom will be coming from outside the civil service) and it is very much the policy team of the whole government rather than the Tory wing of it. The team members will shadow policy-making in each of the key Whitehall departments – reporting back to Downing Street on what is going on and also ensuring that Number 10’s wishes are understood in that department. The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour has reported on how Mr Kirby will lead the government’s ambition to end the presumption that state will run all of the services that it funds.The Policy Unit will absorb the Implementation Unit overseen by Kris Murrin. Oliver Letwin, James O’Shaugnessy (for the Conservatives) and Polly Mackenzie (for Nick Clegg) will be most responsible for political liaison with Kirby and Murrin.

The Research and Analytics unit.

This unit will be overseen by Ivan Collister and the wider Downing Street staff refer to this six person outfit as “boffins central”. It supports the policy unit but rather than working on a department-by-department basis will investigate and understand general concepts such as payment-by-results, early intervention, nudging and the value of preventative spending.

The press operation:

George Osborne describes the new head of communications, Craig Oliver, as the best broadcast journalist of his generation. Profiled here by Radio 4, Mr Oliver was such a hit at ITN that he was poached by the BBC to revamp their 6pm and 10pm news programmes. He starts at Downing Street on Monday and will need to convince a sceptical newspaper industry that he won’t neglect them. Gabby Bertin and Alan Sendorek, both popular among Fleet Street journalists, will lead day-to-day briefing. Back now at CCHQ Henry Macrory will direct the Tory Party’s anti-Labour ops. Oliver will inherit the redesign of the Downing Street press operation that Andy Coulson masterminded. Steve Field and Jenny Grey will oversee the civil service team of press officers that will be a merger of the existing Number 10 and Cabinet Office teams (delivering an overall staff saving). I understand they’ll now be too press officers for them all to fit in the existing office – leading to hot debates about who will sit where and have the coveted access and visibility. The combined unit will be increasing its outreach to the broadcasters and new media. It will also have devoted focus on cross-cutting themes including the Big Society, family and public service reform.

Head of Political Strategy:

I’ve stated my views on Andrew Cooper already. I worry that he is an über-moderniser and hostile to the party’s grassroots. Cooper has many admirers, however. Matthew d’Ancona wrote on Sunday in praise of Cooper’s “pitiless empiricism”. “He tells it how it is,” he wrote, “on the basis of detailed poll findings rather than precedent or prejudice.”  This is hotly disputed by others who note that as pollster to the party, he was part of the pre-election problem that saw the party neglect key issues, especially, until 2008, the economy. When the grassroots were crying out for retail messages for the doorstep and worrying that voters didn’t know where the party stood, Cooper was pushing the ‘further decontamination’ line. Cooper takes a very static rather than dynamic view of public opinion, one commentator noted. If he is not interested in a subject – like immigration – he doesn’t probe how it can be best presented and how public opinion can evolve. The need for a strategic focus is clear, however, and working alongside Nick Clegg’s top aide, Richard Reeves (author of ‘the Reeves Three Point Plan for the LibDems in Coalition‘), Cooper will oversee the strategic grid. One aide says that Cooper will ensure the party monitors how it is doing with women, working class voters, urban communities and, whenever necessary, drag the party and government to focus on these key groups. Let us hope so.


One of the consequences of Andy Coulson’s departure is the renewed ascendancy of Steve Hilton.

Before the election he ranged freely – covering policy, communications, strategy and brand management. Since the election he has been much more focused on policy implementation or “getting things done” as he describes it. Within the new Downing Street order he is set to chair a campaigns committee and is talking to commentators, helping them to understand big ideas like the Big Society. Energetically supported by Rohan Silva he, say observers, his recovering his natural enthusiasm that had dimmed throughout 2010. Hilton is most certainly not the hippy that he is painted. On family, Europe, and education, for example, he really is one of Downing Street’s most Conservative figures.

Elsewhere in Downing Street Stephen Gilbert, the PM’s Political Secretary, continues to provide intelligence and on-the-ground campaigning insight.

He is currently coordinating the party’s contribution to the No2AV campaign.


Also critical is the emergence of Michael Fallon.

His formal title may be Deputy Tory Chairman but, in reality, he is performing the role that Andrew MacKay fulfilled until his fall from grace. Attending all key Downing Street meetings Fallon is the most important Thatcherite voice in Number 10 – at least he was until Paul Kirby arrives, says one.

Ed Llewellyn, Chief of Staff, and Kate Fall continue to run the Prime Minister’s personal office.

“Cameron could not manage without their dedication, kindness and intelligence,” said one insider – they are the PM’s “Praetorian Guard”. It is also important, as The Economist’s Janan Ganesh has done, to note the centrality of Jeremy Heywood:

“Mr Heywood’s analytical rigour, quiet efficiency and ability to please masters of different political stripes are all typical civil-service traits. Less common among bureaucrats, however, is his radicalism. The government is eager to create a more open and decentralised state. It has been shocked by the resistance from Whitehall generally. But it has been equally surprised by Mr Heywood’s enthusiasm. He is always prodding departments to be bolder in publishing government data and pushing power down to the lowest tier possible. He also has an unforgiving eye for inefficiency, focused by his years in business and at the Treasury. He is helping to bring in a hard-nosed approach to defence procurement, for example. Insiders say it is difficult to come up with a reforming idea that would shock him.”

The reorganisation, I understand, is unfinished business.

The PM’s principal advisers understand that the biggest gap remains an external relations function that will build deep links with third party groups. It is also likely that the speechwriting team will soon be beefed up.

Overall, however, the overhaul is very promising. Downing Street appears close to having an operation that can grip the Whitehall machine and can communicate a message that rises above the cuts, cuts, cuts narrative.

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