With the Coalition now trailing Labour by up to 13 points in the polls, many commentators have suggested this week that there is now a split in the Cameron inner-circle between civil servants and political advisors which is causing the party real political problems. So the argument goes: there are too few political advisors flagging potential political potholes, instead technocratic civil servants are pushing out policies without paying due attention to how they may be perceived politically.
Many in the party have now begun to lament Cameron’s initial decision to install Sir Jeremy Heywood – a civil servant – as Downing Street Permanent Secretary before his promotion to Cabinet Secretary in January 2012. As emphasised by James Forsyth’s piece on the Spectator yesterday, the assertion by many is that Heywood has played a blinder in gaining overall control of the policy unit. In appointing Paul Kirby as head of the policy unit who had previously worked with George Osborne in opposition, Forsyth suggests Heywood cleverly took over the policy unit while assuaging Conservative fears. Despite this Forsyth highlights that now Kirby is a civil servant he is refusing to have Conservative Party political appointees present at policy unit meetings, making it harder for Cameron to control the unit’s activity. With Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson now gone that leaves Rohan Silva, previously Hilton’s deputy looking at wider strategy, and only Patrick Rock and Oliver Dowden looking at upcoming political events and engaged in political troubleshooting. The suggestion from many is that they could now do with some backup.
This view is shared by Neil O’Brien, the Director of Policy Exchange, who wrote an article in the Financial Times this week in which he said: “Mr Cameron needs to take a stronger grip on the civil service machine, increase his political firepower and redouble efforts to modernise both the Conservative Party and Britain”. All this chatter culminated in the suggestion in yesterday’s Telegraph in a scoop from Donata Huggins that Matthew Elliot from the Tax Payers Alliance will be drafted as a senior policy advice to sure up the political side of No. 10.
The question is however, would more political firepower have helped Cameron avoid the now daily questioning in the media of the Coalition’s political competence and the constant suggestion that they are the ‘party on the side of millionaires? It’s unlikely. Much of the negative coverage that now grips the Coalition can arguably be traced back to one single policy announced in the Budget 2012: the cutting of the 50p tax rate.
Cameron and Osborne were surely well informed that public opinion was massively in favour of the 50p rate, and that it could potentially ‘undo six years of Tory modernisation with a single sentence’, yet they still opted to cut it in the Budget. Moreover, had someone like Matthew Elliot would been in No. 10 in the run up the Budget, it is seems unlikely that he would have encouraged Cameron to do anything but cut the 50p rate as soon as possible.
Cutting the top rate of tax has now done exactly what many predicted it would: set back Tory modernisation and led to the loss of a considerable amount of political capital. Every time the Conservatives release a policy at the moment, the same angle is always found, ‘the Tories are the party for the rich’. The so-called pasty tax is a case in point. Although a largely absurd political story, the media found it all too easy to apply the ‘party-for-the-rich’ line to it in light of the 50p cut in the Budget. Similarly, the Conservatives now face a communications nightmare even in cases when they put forward a broadly sensible policy such as the curbing of tax relief on charitable donations, a policy which is in fact designed to increase the proportion of tax the rich pay.
The ‘omnishambles’ the Conservatives now find themselves in has not been caused by a lack of political firepower in Downing Street, it has been caused by an ill-timed decision to cut the 50p rate at a time when the policy enjoyed widespread support as many ordinary people continue to struggle financially.