Does David Cameron believe in karma? If so, he must wonder whether the current state of his Premiership is some cosmic payback for the events of 5 years ago, when it was Gordon Brown experiencing one ‘worst week ever’ after another, and Cameron leading the gleeful taunts.
The Election that Never Was, the feuding of Gordon’s inner circle, Anthony Seldon’s ‘Blair Unbound’ biography, the Scottish elections fiasco, the ongoing row over ‘British jobs for British workers’, another Foot & Mouth leak from the Pirbright laboratory, the loss of the child benefit discs, David Abrahams’ dodgy donations, the rows over Wendy Alexander’s and Peter Hain’s undeclared donations. Over a two-month period, every time we thought it couldn’t get worse, it got worse, and the demands from the party’s so-called grey beards for someone to ‘get a grip’ grew ever louder..
Now David Cameron must know the feeling. Unfortunately for him, he seems to be lurching into some of the same mistakes which – with the luxury of considerable hindsight – I can see that Gordon made in that period, prolonging the vicious circle of bad headlines and misguided responses.
First, he – like Gordon – is trying to announce his way out of the crisis, going into each Sunday morning and each PMQs with a fresh attempt to get on top of the news agenda with some random, focus group designed announcement. At its very least, this is a waste of potentially good stories and speeches which should be held back until there’s a chance of them being heard; worse, it leads to the bungled announcement of half-baked policies, like the fuel bills balls-up; and worse still, it leads to ridiculous headlines like “Cameron: Now Mug A Hoodie”.
Second, he and his team are fighting forest fires with buckets of sand, when what they need is proper firebreaks, i.e. moments when the pre-existing political news agenda is suspended (or at least turned into a backdrop) while another issue or event comes to the fore. It could be a Budget, a Queen’s Speech, a trip to Washington, a Defence White Paper: anything which obliges the political media to focus their attention elsewhere for a few days, not least – to put it crudely – if they want to get an exclusive preview. So where are the Coalition’s firebreaks? The only one I can see on the horizon is George Osborne’s Autumn Statement on 5th December; that feels a long time away.
Third, and not for the first time, David Cameron is coming across like a one-man band. He is trying to do too much himself, and is over-exposed in the media. Why is he making a crime speech in the first place? Why is he announcing energy policy? These are the acts of a PM who feels a personal pressure – but also a personal responsibility – to turn things around. If he was on good form, this might be an OK thing, but I fear what political insiders view as robust media performances come across to the public as irritable. Plus when the PM takes all the load on himself, the Cabinet switch off and start watching comedy DVDs in first class carriages without thinking about how that looks.
Fourth, the one vital antidote to any temporary mood of crisis is the sense that the person in charge has bigger and more important things to worry about. Obviously the main thing that will determine the next election is the state of the economy and the deficit, but to the extent that the PM projects himself as being “100% focused” on those issues, it tends to be about the next set of jobs and growth figures, or what’s happened with the deficit since the election, not about the really big picture. If I was him, I would immerse myself in the details of the Basel III bank regulations and forecasts of Chinese commodity inventories, and adopt an air – or even better, adopt the reality – of constant concern about what will happen to the world economy in 2014.
Finally, and most importantly, we hear the dread call for “fresh blood” in No10. There are two phrases that every former Gordon Brown staffer got used to hearing when he couldn’t hide his exasperation with them any longer. The first – delivered slowly and usually punctuated with a pounding fist on the back of a chair – was “Too. Many. Mistakes.” The second – delivered in a strangled growl, usually at the person he wanted to murder on the spot – was: “I NEED NEW PEOPLE”.
So it is we hear the demands for David Cameron to get rid of Andrew Cooper and Craig Oliver or rein in Sir Jeremy Heywood, and we can be fairly sure that David Cameron and George Osborne are discussing exactly those issues, not least as they ponder how to fill the gaps that are being left in the communications operation with the departures of Steve Field and Gabby Bertin.
It is always tempting to think that your problems will be solved by hiring new or better people, and that is exactly the route that Gordon went down after his two months from hell in 2007.
Not only did that not work for Gordon, it proved positively damaging, as the new staff struggled to find their feet in an atmosphere of rolling crisis management, and as morale amongst his pre-existing team of civil servants and special advisers collapsed to rock bottom. And if there’s one thing you can’t afford when you’re handling crises, it’s half your people not knowing what they’re supposed to do, and the other half not feeling motivated to do it.
I don’t know whether David Cameron needs new people or not, but I do know this: the people are not the most important thing; it’s the function he gives them, and that brings me to the three people who can save Dave’s Premiership.
If you want to learn about handling crises in government, you shouldn’t watch The West Wing or The Thick Of It; just watch The Larry Sanders Show. Almost every episode tells the story of how a group of people, whatever the dysfunctional behind-the-scenes turmoil, manage to present a successful show at the end of the day. And besides Larry – who is obviously Cameron right down to the luxurious hair – there are 3 individuals who are essential to making every show a success, all with distinct responsibilities, all comparable to roles in Downing Street:
Paula (Janeane Garofalo) is not just the talent-booker; she is the talent – the brains and creativity of the show, but rooted in the real world of what will work and what the audience will like. She is also the show’s strategic planner, spotting problems and filling holes, whether days in advance or minutes before show-time. In No10, she would be in charge of the strategic grid, planning the firebreaks, spotting the opportunities, stopping the screw-ups, and ensuring the talent from elsewhere in the Cabinet gets a chance to shine.
Beverly (Penny Johnson) runs Larry’s life. She manages his time, energy and mood, deciding who he needs to see and what he needs to do. Nobody else has this control, not even Larry’s wives, and it is not shared with anyone. In No10, she would be the PM’s gatekeeper, diary manager and closest confidante, and crucially, she would have the power to tell the civil servants, press officers and advisers who all want a piece of his time and energy when they can and cannot have it.
Artie (Rip Torn) has one job: making the whole operation work, and ensuring that when the curtain goes up, the audience sees an entertaining, professional show, and a smiling, relaxed host. He saves Larry from the stuff he doesn’t have to deal with, and deals brutally with anyone trying to undermine Larry or disrupt the show. In No10, he’d be the person who’d ensure everyone else was doing their job and nothing was distracting the PM from doing his. Like it or not, Andrew Mitchell would have been gone in 5 minutes with an Artie in the room.
At present, David Cameron looks to me like he’s in one of those Larry Sanders episodes where the network is trying to make him change his style, or where he feels he needs to bring in new writers, or where he’s worried about some rival presenter stealing his show or being upstaged by one of the guests. Worse still, his Cabinet and many of his officials and advisers are acting like a bunch of Hanks and Phils, worried about their own interests and futures, not about protecting his.
If he wants to shake up his personnel in No10, and he feels that is crucial in order to get out of the current crisis mode, then he first needs to establish what jobs need doing. He needs to create and then fill the roles of an Artie, a Paula and a Beverly, whether that means giving more power to existing staff members or bringing in new people.
In his time in Downing Street, Gordon didn’t have any individual playing any of those roles. Not even Sue Nye enjoyed the exclusive power over his time and energy that a proper Beverly would have, he lacked a consistent Paula figure, and he never came close to establishing an Artie.
If David Cameron sorts out those roles, then things like planning firebreaks, avoiding botched announcements, focusing on the big picture, and getting the rest of the Cabinet to raise their game will become that much easier. And most importantly, it will allow him to get back to presenting himself as a relaxed, confident, natural Prime Minister. With great hair.