Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Problem at No 10

Michael Jacobs

The extraordinary glimpse into the inner workings of No 10 given in a rare interview by David Cameron’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Oliver Dowden – in which he admitted that he only discovers the daily political agenda by listening to Radio 4’s Today programme (‘Often you’ll get surprised by what’s going on’) and that most of his time is spent on day-to-day crisis management (though ‘we are not permanently in crisis’) – will unfortunately not come as much of a surprise to Conservative MPs fretful about the Prime Minister’s inability to get a grip on his party or government.

Ever since George Osborne’s catastrophe-strewn budget in the spring, Cameron has looked like a man pulled apart by events, not in charge of them. The long-drawn-out resignation of Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell, the ambush and defeat on the EU budget vote by Tory backbench Eurosceptics, and Cameron’s own botched announcement on energy bills (adroitly rescued by Lib Dem energy Secretary Ed Davey this week), all spoke to a deeper malaise at No 10. The open warfare now being waged over low carbon energy policy, with Osborne (according to his father, in a conversation secretly filmed by Greenpeace) now acting as chief strategist for the climate-action sceptics, has demonstrated just how little control Cameron now has over his party. The appointment of the ruthless Malcolm Tucker-style political consultant Lynton Crosby as his election strategist – with immediate effect – at least demonstrates an understanding of how serious the situation is.

It remains to be seen whether Crosby can change the apparatus of management control at Downing St. Since the departure of Cameron’s strategist Steve Hilton, the flat structure of the PM’s office has apparently ceased to work. According to one insider, we are told, ‘it is an interesting question who people report to and who they answer to’. The same problem afflicted the disastrous first 18 months of the Gordon Brown regime at No 10 until he solved it by making the brilliant civil servant Jeremy Heywood his chief of staff and then Permanent Secretary. Heywood acted as the gateway through which all policy and tactics were channelled, ensuring a basic degree of coordination and strategic oversight. Heywood remains as Cameron’s Cabinet Secretary, but he appears to have been unable to exert the same grip under the new administration. It is notable that he has been the subject of some snide behind-the-scenes carping from Ministers and backbenchers, a bad sign.

The nature of Coalition, with the Tories and Lib Dems now desperate to distinguish themselves from one another as they approach the next election, undoubtedly makes the situation harder. However Cameron has not helped himself by his refusal to fill No 10 with enough Special Advisers. ‘Spads’, as they are called in Whitehall jargon, are often reviled in the media as the illegitimate vehicles for the politicisation of the otherwise pure and impartial civil service, but in reality they are an essential part of good government. Like Brown before him, Cameron on entering office pandered to the media’s lazy characterisation of all Spads as ‘spin doctors’ and said he would have fewer of them, but, like Brown, was forced to change his mind within a few months and appoint more. He has not, however, gone far enough, and the No 10 Policy Unit remains staffed largely by civil servants. It doesn’t work. Civil servants just cannot have the political awareness, nous or authority to call errant ministers and sort out political conflicts before they erupt into the public sphere.

I have to declare an interest here, since I was a No 10 Adviser in the Brown Government. So you'd expect me to say that they're invaluable. But that experience made it absolutely clear how important Spads are in spotting political trainwrecks before they hit the tracks, and giving No 10 the means to exercise proper political coordination from the centre. To take just three examples from the field I primarily worked in: if No 10 had had a Spad covering environment and energy policy, the Government would never have announced its proposed sell-off of forests, cut the subsidy to household and community solar power in the middle of a consultation about it (for which it got taken to the courts and the policy overturned at great expense), or allowed Cameron to declare a new policy on energy bills that was literally impossible to implement. All of these mini-disasters were eminently avoidable – if only there had been someone in No 10 with the political job of heading off accidents before they happen and coordinating policy. The same is true of almost all the internal cock-ups and reverses the present government has experienced.

When the Public Administration Committee announced a few months ago that it was setting up an Inquiry into Special Advisers, in the wake of the revelation that Jeremy Hunt’s Spad had been more or less subverting the quasi-judicial process to determine News International’s takeover bid for BSkyB through his cosy relationship with Murdoch’s PR man, it was widely expected that it would recommend a diminution in their role and numbers. The Committee’s questioning of witnesses was fierce. Yet when its report appeared last month it was quietly supportive of the role that Spads play and recommended its official acknowledgement and regularisation. It acknowledged, contrary to the prevailing myth, that the relationship between civil servants and special advisers is generally very good; and that political advisers, so far from polluting the constitutional impartiality of the civil service, help protect it.

It should hardly come as a surprise that the good conduct of government needs people with political understanding and judgement. In difficult times, the Prime Minister might ask if he could do with some more of them in his office.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Obama's Victory: Non-Lessons for Britain

Michael Jacobs

Barack Obama's remarkable victory proves one thing at least: just how distorting is the first past the post electoral system. Obama's convincing triumph in the electoral college masks a very narrow margin in actual votes cast: as of this morning, 50.2% to the President, 48.2% to Romney, or under two and a half million voters out of a probable total of approximately 120m.

And of course that excludes the more than 40% of eligible voters who almost certainly did not vote, not to mention the estimated 5 million plus US citizens who are not registered to vote at all due to the active disenfranchisement strategies of republican-controlled electoral districts. (It is remarkable how little publicity this scandal receives. No other mature democracy in the world allows electoral registration rules and practices to be locally determined and politically partisan.)

Never mind. The results will now be pored over by British pundits keen to find lessons for our own general election in two and a half years' time. The truth is of course that there aren't any. America is another country, and nothing valid can be translated from one nationally-specific system and campaign to another.

But let's do it anyway. So here are four lessons from the US election for British politics.

One. A comfort to Cameron: you can win an election with unemployment stubbornly high and refusing to fall significantly. Obama confounded all historic trends to win with joblessness hovering at around 8%, a figure they said would doom him. Given the anaemic performance of the British economy being projected for the next two years, Cameron will be hoping the same applies in Britain.

Two. After four years of economic downturn, the voters are much more interested in job creation and the promise of rising living standards than they are in the abstract idea of deficit reduction. As Paul Krugman never stops pointing out, Obama's Keynesian fiscal stance since 2010 has been about as weak as that label allows, but it has at least maintained sufficient demand to stop unemployment rising, and his active rescue of the US car industry may well have clinched his crucial victory in Ohio. It was striking that Romney was forced during the campaign to switch his message from the importance of deficit reduction to his active plan (such that it was) to create jobs. Unless it can somehow be miraculously conjured out of his ideological straitjacket, George Osborne's fatal inability to come up with anything that looks like a 'plan for growth', as Michael Heseltine is only the latest person to point out, creates serious problems for both Coalition parties going into the next election.

Three. You don't win by shifting to the right. As everyone has observed, the dominance of Tea Party politics among Republicans forced Romney to take up extreme right-wing positions in order to win selection as the party candidate, but these policies then proved a fatal handicap in winning over independents and floating voters in the election proper. It's not just the unpopularity of those views which are the problem - it's also the flip-flopping between right and centre which undermines credibility with the electorate. The increasing confidence of the Tory Right here, flexing their muscles over Europe, renewable energy and welfare spending cuts with Cameron apparently powerless to resist them, makes the Prime Minister very vulnerable to the same charge. Ed Miliband's bold march into the centre ground of One Nation politics while Cameron is dragged off stage right risks severe electoral consequences for the Conservatives.

Four. In times of recession, a policy of tax cuts for the very rich is not a good idea. Whatever its economic merits (of which there were none), Romney's tax plan - maintaining taxes on middle income earners while cutting them for the very rich - proved electorally suicidal in a country where the middle class has seen its living standards fall for more than a decade while the super-rich have awarded themselves grotesque returns even during the recession. Yet amazingly, that is exactly where Cameron and Osborne have positioned themselves too with their extraordinary decision to cut the 50p rate top of tax. It did not take even a glance at the opinion polls - which show that the tax cut is opposed by 55% and supported by 32% - to tell Ed Miliband that the 'tax cuts for millionaires' charge helps define the Tories as ineradicably 'out of touch' with the lives of ordinary British people in exactly the same way as Obama charged Romney.

So let us repeat. You cannot draw conclusions from an election campaign in one country for the election prospects in another. None of these lessons can be inferred to apply in Britain from what has happened in the US.

But they might be true nevertheless.