This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
The dark days of David Cameron’s premiership have left many deep scars on the backs of those in No 10, but the storm triggered by the Budget disaster has had the perverse effect of sharpening the operation and focusing minds like never before.
Change is coming. Talk to figures in No 10, however, and you won’t find people running for the exit door, beaten into submission by months of brutal headlines. Many more blunders were avoided that the public never got to see. Balls were dropped, but they were caught at the last minute.
“It’s life,” says one key staffer. “These are the times you earn your stripes. We have actually gained a lot of strength. Sure, there have been very bleak days. But we’ve learned. We’ve pulled together.”
And the lessons they’ve learned are already unfolding before our eyes. Cameron has ordered a full-scale return to “bread and butter” politics, as he and his team realised that too many announcements were being made and going off at half-cock. House of Lords reform, for example, is a great example of something that never registers on the public radar, but which occupies huge amounts of ministerial time.
The failure to focus relentlessly on the economy, education and welfare reform means the government has no central narrative. This, in turn, has led to a sense of drift, which, although unfair, is a triumph of perception ruthlessly exploited by Labour.
The PM hit his lowest point six weeks after that Budget disaster, according to those around him, but nothing galvanises a premier into action more than the fear of losing the keys to 10 Downing Street. And Labour’s poll lead has spurred him into fast and decisive action; he recently gave his cabinet a dressing down for allowing their departments to snarl up progress.
Cameron, not given to demonstrations of anger, is furious after learning that the government is heading for an under-spend on the infrastructure programme unveiled last year. Spades have yet to break the surface on key road and other building works due to over-cautious civil servants dragging their heels and ministers failing to smash their blocking techniques.
He told his cabinet lieutenants it was “totally unacceptable”, that work must start and secretaries of state must become “activists” to push through change.
Perhaps a reshuffle in September is the best possible incentive for ministers to demonstrate their activism. Implementation is key: the premier knows he stands a better chance of a second term if voters are using new roads and public buildings, in a country enjoying superfast broadband from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
Consequently, ministers have been told to ram home the message that the government has the right growth policies in place, and the economic strategy will succeed. There’s no need to find a Plan B – just deliver on Plan A.
But new faces are soon to join No 10. A team of “aggressive” political people is being recruited for the policy unit whose role will be twofold: to force through implementation and to dream up “bread and butter” policy that will mean something to the man in the street.
Steve Hilton, now living in California, became hugely frustrated with the Whitehall officials and the EU laws which proved massive barriers to progress, but some believe he was also culpable for a culture that insisted street-fighting political advisers was not needed in Downing Street. The PM has become convinced that was an error, and new blood will be injected soon.
Historically, George Osborne has tended to be the recruitment chief at the highest ranks of the Conservative Party. He’s less able to play the role now it is in government, but it is crucial that the chancellor still has a close eye on who joins the team.
Personnel matters at the heart of government. Too many chiefs, and nothing gets done. Keeping the focus sharply on a clear and simple agenda is crucial, but there are crumbs of comfort for the PM. He is significantly ahead in the polls when it comes to whom voters would prefer as prime minister. But he is not oblivious to the electoral arithmetic.
The Tories may do well in the south of England, where they’re fighting marginal seats against the Liberal Democrats – fleeing Lib Dem voters will go to Labour, which should translate into safer Tory seats – but it’s in the north of England and the East Midlands where there are many Conservative MPs hanging onto their seats against Labour challengers.
Lib Dem voters decamping to Labour could mean a wipeout for the Tories, and disaster for Cameron. No wonder he recently told supporters at the Conservative Summer Ball: “We have so much more to do, and the thought of having Ed Miliband and Ed Balls back in this place is blood-curdling.”
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications