More thoughts on Downing Street - RSA

More thoughts on Downing Street


This time last year I wrote in the FT what may have been the first piece written after the General Election suggesting that Downing Street might be under-powered; a year on I'm not sure much has changed.

My former colleague John McTernan has an interesting column in yesterday's Telegraph. He urges David Cameron to read the speeches on leadership and public service reform Tony Blair has been making in Australia. In place of the impatient tone of recent biography, the former PM seems more ready now to talk about reform being a long haul requiring careful planning and consistent application.

I don't agree with everything John says. His assertion that Michael Gove is getting reform right suggest he is focused on the momentum of Academy and free school establishment - which is impressive - rather than the destination of school's policy which continues to be unclear. McTernan is also somewhat generous about John Reid's tenure at health apparently forgetting that Patricia Hewitt - Reid's successor - inherited a department which had put most hard decisions on hold and where literally no one could explain how the reforms set in train in Labour's second term would actually be implemented in the third.

But these are details. Running though the column is the same frustration I have repeatedly expressed in this blog. Those of us who have worked in Number Ten have a kind of tribal loyalty to the centre of Government and, almost regardless of who is in post, we want to see the office being well used. As John argues, last week's briefing of Steve Hilton's 'ideas which might be quite fun if we were living in a parallel universe' list is not an example of an effective Number Ten intervention.

David Cameron continues to be a good communicator and to deal to deal pretty well with crises. Despite the complications of being in coalition he gives the general impression of being in control and, according the polls, his popularity - while continuing to decline - is still ahead of his Party and his colleagues.

Domestically the key tasks of Number Ten, working with the Cabinet Office, are strategy setting, policy co-ordination and political narrative. On strategy, deficit reduction continues to be the only show in town. Not only does this effectively cede control to the Treasury but it leaves the Government without vision or a story of hope. This was the gap the Big Society was supposed to fill but the brand has been holed below the waterline by a combination of imprecision and hubris (yesterday's Guardian splash on charity cuts was yet another reminder of why governments should under-promise and over deliver rather than - as than as the coalition has patently done over the BS - the reverse).

In relation to policy co-ordination, there is a general overload of mission critical reform programmes across the Government and, as I argued in a recent post, there seem to be problems with policy coherence within, let alone across, departments.

Finally, in terms of political narrative, it is hard to get a clear sense of the political direction in which David Cameron is trying to lead his Government. Sometimes it feels like Number Ten sees its job as driving the coalition to be more radical. This was the implication of the Hilton note and the constant reassertion of the PM's enthusiastic support for the austerity programme. But at other times the Prime Minister returns to his pre-election image as a moderate who takes the Conservative Party out of its comfort zone. This is the David Cameron who enjoys working with Nick Clegg, who cares about poverty, social mobility and climate change.

Some will argue it is a strength that Cameron's own sense of his mission is difficult to pin down. I'm not so sure. To maximise its effectiveness Number Ten should focus on a shortlist of political and policy priorities. It should want ministers, MPs and opinion formers (and through them the engaged public) to understand what these are and seek to build support and develop messages around them. For example, while no one wants a return to the ghastly relations between Number Ten and HMT which existed in the later Blair Brown years, the public would probably be reassured to hear that team Cameron team is continually challenging team Osborne to try to protect the most vulnerable from the impact of cuts.

It is still early days for the Prime Minister and his Government. It took Tony Blair most of his first term to realise he needed to develop his own distinctive reform agenda. But the Hilton briefing is more evidence that Downing Street hasn't yet got a clear account of, nor perhaps even the capacity to act upon, its own core mission and purpose in Government. As thoughts turn to David Cameron's Party conference speech, it is this necessity - rather than some here-today-gone tomorrow announcements and soundbites - which should be paramount.

PS John McTernan says ex-Blairites are in demand down under. I'm flying to Australia for two weeks tonight so just wanted to say I am available at my usual speaking rates (all profits to the RSA of course).

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