Friday, 2 November 2012

Policing the policy groups

The kerfuffle surrounding the review by Lord Heseltine  reminded me of the time I was handed the poisoned chalice of taking charge of communicating the policy groups set up by David Cameron in the first days of his leadership. Working alongside Oliver Letwin I was tasked with reviewing every word of each review to, in the words of Cameron, "make sure there are no bombs which might go off".

Setting up policy groups has become the norm by opposition politicians in the UK as a way to keep the media off their backs for the first few years of a Parliament. When the inevitable question is pondered about a position on Trident/nuclear power/welfare reform or any other pressing, nationally important, question one can breezily answer that it is part of the policy review. Labour under Ed Miliband has done exactly the same thing.  

Damian McBride, in his insightful blog, has written about 'the election that never was' concentrating on the internal rows of Gordon Brown's Labour government. Things were equally tense in the Conservative Party. 

From 2005 I'd spent two years working alongside George Osborne finding as many different ways to undermine Brown and position him as yesterday's man prior to his making the transition from Chancellor to Prime Minister. All our internal polling showed we had been pretty successful; there was no real appetite for a Brown premiership. In reality, when he did take over at Number 10, good luck coupled with a well planned onslaught of announcements, backed up by the British good-natured attitude to 'give him a chance', resulted in what was soon gleefully described to me by hacks from the Daily Telegraph to the Guardian as "the Brown bounce". 

Externally all at CCHQ tried to communicate a sense of calm: "we always knew his polling numbers would move up", "the election is a long way off, it's fine". However, the election could have been only months away. 

That was how I found myself having daily meetings to "shape" the policy groups. The problem: they didn't want to be "shaped". The six policy groups were tasked with delivering genuine new ideas on the economy, social justice, public services, global poverty, quality of life, national and international security. They were chaired by a formidable list of former cabinet ministers and experts in their fields: Stephen Dorrell (Public Services); John Redwood (Economic Competitiveness); Dame Pauline Neville-Jones (National and International Security); John Gummer with Zac Goldsmith (Quality of Life); Peter Lilley (Globalisation and Global Poverty); and Iain Duncan Smith (Social Justice). Not exactly the most shy and retiring group of people to hammer out details over policy with. Thank goodness the ever indefatigable, habitually good-natured and immensely intelligent Oliver Letwin was tasked with pulling every strand of every policy group together. 

My days were spent reading new chapters of the various reports, drafting up memos where I highlighted any areas of concern to Cameron, Osborne and Letwin, and meeting with the policy group secretariat to discuss our, sometimes conflicting views. It was an immense challenge moving from health to foreign aid to the economy and back to health over the course of one day while trying to keep up with Oliver's ferocious appetite to devour detail in seconds. For every 'out of the box' policy idea all I saw was a negative headline in the Daily Mail. Oliver, ever the optimist, was determined that as much of the original thinking should remain in the documents even if the language had to be considerably re-drafted. All the time this process was on-going the General Election of 2007 was creeping nearer. 

In the space of roughly three months all the policy groups - plus the huge range of sub-groups - delivered their findings, published their reports and a Conservative manifesto was drafted in anticipation for the Autumn poll. Most of the good policy was ignored by the media while any area which could cause consternation with voters was seized upon. I felt for those who had toiled for months to produce original thinking only to see it either attacked by the media, shunned by the party or lambasted by the Labour Party. Within CCHQ however this process had calmed nerves and a new determination was forming that we were, sort of, ready for an election despite only roughly half of seats having Conservative candidates in place.  

Relations between the groups and the party leadership became strained but there was one moment of class from Zac Goldsmith. Despite spending a terribly stressful week rushing his report to the finish line - including having conference calls with Oliver and myself at 2am on two consecutive nights- when all was said and done I received a personal note of thanks for my patience.  

So what lessons have been learnt from this process? Looking at the Heseltine report's coverage little seems to have changed. While the Conservative Business and Treasury teams may find much in the report they like, the focus in the media reporting was on where disagreements have formed. It may be that the same process I was involved in happened again with this report. It also appeared that a certain amount of expectation management had been deployed by the Treasury while Heseltine himself tried manfully to talk up areas of agreement. 

While I don't wish the role I had in the summer of 2005 on anyone, as a Conservative I am very much looking forward to the Labour Party policy review reporting. Is it not ready yet chaps, you've certainly had long enough? 

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