This article is from the July issue of Total Politics
A recent book claims “chillaxing” David Cameron loves nothing better than inviting chums to Chequers for a game of snooker. This anecdote handed critics a new line of attack – that the PM is too laid back to have a firm grip on his government.
Except the story is 100 per cent, copper-bottomed, ocean-going nonsense.
Those of us who’ve been to Chequers know there’s no snooker table at the PM’s country residence.
There’s Queen Elizabeth I’s locket ring, Cromwell’s sword, Napoleon’s love letters, the Rubens painting The Lion and the Mouse – retouched by Sir Winston Churchill, who felt the Flemish master’s rodent needed greater definition.
But you’ll never hear the click of billiard balls at Chequers. Yet questions persist about the premier’s control of his government, his sense of purpose and the direction of the coalition.
His style is to delegate. He likes to set the direction, then leave the captains of the ships of state to plot the journey. Civil servants, the PM believes, have an enormously important role and must be given the freedom to carry it out, while secretaries of state, ministers and their teams should be allowed to sink or swim, express their views and get on with their missions. In short, people are treated like grown-ups.
This approach is mistrusted by today’s political classes, hooked on obsessive control from the centre. They mistakenly see it as inactivity, and it’s this that lies at the root of any accusations that Cameron is not as in control of his administration as he might be.
One member of his circle says: “The PM believes in a light touch on the tiller. Once he’s sent people in the right direction, he steps back and lets them get on with it. In many ways, he’s challenging the country to judge him at the end of five years, not halfway through. It’s a ballsy approach from a confident man.”
Nonetheless, some in the camp believe the danger of allowing critics to write the narrative is that perceptions are nine-tenths of the law in politics.
The PM and his ministers have actually achieved an extraordinary amount in a very short time. I gave up counting when I reached 37 bills passed in the last legislative session.
Academy schools, the military covenant enshrined into law, a refreshed right-to-buy, the biggest welfare-to-work act since the 1930s, and the biggest-ever increase in the basic state pension are just a clutch of tasks achieved.
But Cameron doesn’t like to crow about his achievements – “It’s just not his style,” moans one friend – and it’s taken recent shake-ups to persuade him to be more proactive in communicating action.
And shake-ups there have been. Liberal Democrats will never again be trusted by senior ministers after they gutted George Osborne’s draft Budget and dished it out to Lobby journalists while the chancellor visited Washington DC.
Nick Clegg’s pro-EU speeches have somehow not been run past the PM’s team, and a series of policy reversals have given rise to charges that Cameron is blowing in the wind.
Yet those inside the bunker don’t see it in the same light. The Budget was a difficult one to deliver.
It had to be revenue-neutral, meaning that for every giveaway there had to be a balancing clawback. And, boy, were there giveaways. Nearly a million low-paid workers were taken out of income tax altogether. The 50p top rate of tax was slashed to 45p. Those two measures alone should have pleased all Conservatives.
Privately, staffers and senior figures admit there were blunders. Of course they do. And the next big question is this: who is doing the ‘phase two’ thinking for a second term? Who is in charge of writing the script for the next five years of Cameroonism? Who is holding the pen on the Tory manifesto for the next general election?
Oliver Letwin, described in this column as the coalition government’s “mainframe computer”, is focused virtually exclusively on the ‘what if?’ thinking around the collapse of the euro and the frozen UK economy, particularly as many at the top of the Treasury expect Greece to have exited the euro by year-end. Spain, Portugal and Italy could follow.
James O’Shaughnessy, who wrote the 2010 Tory election manifesto, has now left Downing Street and is a valued colleague of mine at Portland.
And Steve Hilton has moved to California. These are the three big thinkers on whom Cameron has relied the most to set the long-term destination.
There is a long way to go yet. The coalition must be dismantled in some way, perhaps with Clegg standing down as an MP to become Britain’s next EU commissioner.
In the meantime, fixing the economy remains the biggest challenge.
And if the PM is able to achieve one thing with his government, that’s where his effort must go.
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications