The Gang of Four
There’s a new “quad” in town – and it’s running the country. David Cameron meets every morning with George Osborne, William Hague and Michael Gove. Between them, they carve up the issues of the day and the policies the government will pursue.
The old “quad” is dead.
The four-man meeting of the PM, the chancellor, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander is long gone. The only meaningful interaction between the PM and his Lib Dem deputy is a weekly bilateral. Their two private offices negotiate between each other once the two have met to discuss their political and policy priorities. The new “quad” has emerged since the reshuffle. It’s having a profound effect on the way government is run – in a positive way, according to people at very high levels in No. 10.
And the reason it works is because Mr Osborne, Mr Hague and Mr Gove are totally loyal to the PM. In the past, Mr Cameron and the chancellor made all the decisions on the Conservative side. They paired up with Mr Clegg and Mr Alexander to ensure difficult decisions were gripped and things got done. It was an effective four-man relationship. In particular, Mr Alexander won significant respect from his Conservative colleagues at the top of the government.
Few Cabinet ministers had much influence at the top. This is more the case than ever, according to those familiar with the operation. Now the wisdom of the Commons leader and the political nous of the chief whip are being applied to the questions of the day. The PM is being challenged about his thinking more. And he is being forced to be far more political in his decision-making. Until relatively recently, Mr Cameron could be accused of “doing the right thing” too often, regardless of the political consequences for him or his party.
Now Mr Gove in particular is injecting a fresh political perspective to decision-making as the Conservative high command begins to focus hard on May 2015. Nothing is now done at the head of the Tory machine without it fitting into the rubric of “long term economic plan”. Ministers in far off departments are banned from doing trade magazine interviews if the message doesn’t support “LTEP”.
Those working for this quad say the relationship between Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne has never been anything other than rock solid. Their contrasting styles are a perfect compliment. In particular, they point to the PM’s world-class decision-making ability under pressure. This, they say, is because of his deep-rooted political beliefs about what a “true Conservative” would think and do in almost any given situation. He doesn’t have to agonise about what needs to be done. It’s instinctive because he’s guided by Conservative principles. In his heart, he knows precisely what he should do in most situations.
But it’s right to say that he’s much more tactical than the chancellor who remains the political strategist. The decision to offer Greater Manchester its own Mayor and to build a “northern powerhouse” economy is his – and is a classic Osborne move. It is aimed at making Labour supporters – and those sceptic about voting Tory – realise the Conservatives are genuinely focused on changing the economy outside the south. It is to devolve power and it is to find ways of surprising people about what drives the Tories. The decision to focus guns on Vince Cable’s Twickenham constituency is another example of political strategy.
It’s ballsy and unexpected to take on a 12,000 strong Lib Dem majority in south west London.
But it’s a smart move. It puts pressure on Dr Cable who must spend more time nursing his constituency than beavering away at BIS – allowing the chancellor to increase the Conservative influence on Britain’s industrial sector.
Lib Dem thinker David Laws is still seen as an important cog in the wheel of the coalition – meeting regularly with Oliver Letwin on the Tory side to drive ideas and agreement. It’s a statement of the obvious. But it’s still worth noting. The PM believes he will be returned to power in May 2015. He’s not in doubt. He’s not taking it for granted – far from it – but he is steady in his assessment.
Unlike his opposite number, he is not riven with doubt. His logic is this: Labour should be worried to their boots about the fact that their poll rating is gradually eroding and that Miliband’s personal standing with the British public is in the doldrums. The least popular leader of a political party since records began. Ed Miliband is said to be showing signs of paranoia around his own team; Labour HQ staffers are exhausted and the mood is downbeat.
Even Mr Miliband’s public-facing approach is grimly pessimistic about Britain’s future.
That’s before voters begin to focus hard on the election, the BBC swings into full examination mode and the British press – bar The Mirror and Guardian – get behind Mr Cameron. He’s convinced UKIP will fade a week before election day as voters decide it’s too risky to flirt with Nigel Farage. And so despite the arithmetical Everest he must climb, he will still be in power a year from now.
As I revealed in last month’s Insider column, the PM’s strategy is to convince people that this general election is no time for game-playing.
It’s much too important for Britain’s future to flirt with UKIP and land Mr Miliband as premier, he’ll say.
And the PM is convinced that at the very last moment, Britain’s electorate will look into their hearts and agree the risk is too high to back UKIP.