Cameron’s No 10 is now Blairish

Posted by Richard D North under Dare to be dull / Post-Bureaucratic world on 5 April 2011

After a year in power, Cameron is now governing like Tony Blair. That’s to say, his use of the levers of power is increasingly bunkered in Number 1o, with message control and management of ministers and Whitehall by party trusties. Here’s an assessment of how it happened.

David Cameron said he wanted an administration of quiet effectiveness, and instead he’s got a historic loud muddle over his rushed NHS reforms and it’s a pretty typical debacle for Mr Cameron. 

We might have expectd it. Mr Cameron had a horror of wasting his first term (as Tony Blair’s autobiography confirmed he wasted his), and has undertaken a big slate of policy changes to be achieved quickly.  Besides, in some areas the deficit strategy has forced the pace.

Mr Cameron had always been thought to admire Tony Blair, the great triangulator and communicator. But it was an ambiguous fandom: a return to Cabinet chimed with some of Mr Cameron’s pre-election remarks, as he sought to distance himself from Sofa Government.

True to his word, the Cabinet has enjoyed renewed importance, partly because of the dynamics of coalition. But there may also have been a useful traditionalism in the thinking: Mr Cameron was chairman of the board, if not primus inter pares.

When Mr Cameron went to war, over Libya, he stressed the discussion and endorsement round the table. Perhaps it made sense to dip Lib-Dem hands in the blood. (For a sharp account of Cabinet government, see “Cabinet government”, The Better Government Initiative, December 2010.)

However, relations with Whitehall seem to be as difficult under Cameron as they had been under Blair, and for much the same reasons. They have provoked Blairite responses.

There was an initial love-in as Gus O’Donnell’s note on, and planning for, hung Parliaments, and the subsequent inter-party negotiations, went swimmingly. The Cabinet Secretary briefly became part of a trinity of GOD, DC and NC.

Last May, they strode down Whitehall between Downing Street and Westminster, as the incarnation of a new hep accommodation between the executive and the legislative worlds.

The sheer speed and suddenness of policy announcements then ensured chaos. The NHS, education, housing benefits, police and BBC were all subjected to rapid change which bore little resemblance to party manifestos, or – even where they did – deserved and didn’t get a decent, formal post-election discussion. Instead, the reforms were announced as though pre-ordained. Any scrutiny by Whitehall or the public looked like unseemly squabbling rather than stately deliberation.

We can leave a little on one side Iain Duncan Smith and his welfare policy as an area where Whitehall and the public knew very well where the incoming government might want to go, and where the latter presumably not only agreed but had laid down some plans. And Ken Clarke is presumably singing from the Ministry of Justice’s liberal song-sheet. At least so far, there is an admirable smoothness in these areas. Pensions policy seems to be receiving the proper Green Paper/White Paper routine.

Mr Cameron has learned from Tories as well as New Labour. Like Mrs Thatcher, Cameron knows all change, including decentralisation, must be forced from the centre. He may want to be a better Thatcherite than she was: he seems determined to re-model the welfare state. If he can’t shrink and privatise it, he will – like John Major – at least make the reforms which make these easier later.

Perhaps the Cameron strategy is to make muddled progress, but progress at least, and endure the loss of political capital caused by some climb-downs, and endure it now and on an ad hoc basis. That’s better than paying the political price nearer election time. The cuts and mini-riots become a handy distraction.

Much of the policy chaos seems to flow from hasty action by ministers such as Andrew Lansley and Michael Gove. Perhaps it’s a vicious circle: Cameron told his ministers to get on with it; the latter steam-rollered their departments; and the officials couldn’t very well protect their ministers from their own enthusiasm. 

In recent weeks, David Cameron has been reported to feel (very much as Tony Blair did) that Whitehall is dragging its feet over reforms. But ministries may very properly be more fussed about means than ends: propriety is their job. Cameron’s response has been to throw out his former insistence that he would work traditionally (presumably with the Cabinet Office and Whitehall) rather than with an official private office teaming with politically-appointed Special Advisers (SPADs). He wants his own Blairish janissaries checking on ministers and departments alike to ensure that Number 10′s strategies are followed. (The Guardian has looked at the issue  and there is useful almost stroppy blog from the Institute for Government’s Zoe Gruhn.)

The administrative and policy disarray has been matched by a more surprising failure of presentation. The Cameron Number 10 was reported to spew out briefings which flagrantly contradicted one another. It is said to be irritated by media accounts of ministerial muddle. So now we hear that The Grid (forward-looking message control) has been beefed-up so as to avoid presentational accidents. All in all, Blairite media-handling is now the order of the day. So much for frankness.

Oddly, David Cameron is even more opaque than Tony Blair, who made a mist of transparency. Even accounts of Cameron’s having a Tory-ish pragmatism are discounted by alternative narratives which seem as well or as little informed. The PM doesn’t really bother to inform us.

But we can detect a rush to Blairite management. This makes gloomy news because we had half a hope that Mr Cameron wanted to help form a modern way to govern Britain that built on the past rather than skirted round it.

Be Sociable, Share!

No related posts.


This post's tags


Share this post

Be Sociable, Share!

Keep track of it

Related pages