There was one passage in The Sunday Times’ expose of Steve Hilton’s Stanford lecture which told me everything about the problems the Government is currently facing. According to the report, Hilton dramatically produced a 1-foot high bundle of paper for his audience representing 4 days worth of documents circulated to Cabinet committees. He then said:
“It just shows you the scale of what you’re up against in trying to control these things. The idea that a couple of political advisers read through all this and spot things are bad, things that are contradictory, is just inconceivable.”
And he’s right, which is precisely why a system has been in place since 1997 which means they don’t have to. The ‘grid system’ initiated by New Labour - transferred from their 1997 election campaign - is commonly considered to be a news management tool, with a series of announcements plotted to dominate each day’s coverage and provide occasional cover to bury bad news.
However, its far more important role was doing precisely what Hilton says is impossible: giving political advisers an easily-digestable paper (no more than 20-30 pages long) containing the key elements of every government announcement or external news item coming up for the next fortnight.
The ‘grid’ itself was simply an aide-memoire version of this longer document, with each announcement arranged in order of importance and general subject area for each of the next fourteen days on two A4 sheets of paper, with the emerging grids for the next two months added on to give a longer-term view.
This ‘Upcoming Business’ document would be circulated by No10’s Strategic Communications Unit each Thursday evening, and would then form the basis of a Friday morning meeting to go through each item in the grid line-by-line.
At different times under the Labour government, these meetings were chaired by Alastair Campbell, Ed Miliband (as Cabinet Office minister) and Jeremy Heywood (as PPS to Gordon Brown). They were attended by every member of the No10 Policy Unit (responsible for shadowing different departments), all key Communications staff, and all the key civil servants in the PM’s private office.
As the cast-list suggests, behind the Cabinet meetings, these were the most important meetings of the week in Downing Street. Upcoming announcements by other departments would be challenged, more information sought, and - because each item would get at least two airings before it was due to be announced - it was (to quote Hilton) “inconceivable” that something would be announced without No10 knowing about it, let alone something that they didn’t agree with.
Take a hypothetical example of how it would work: DEFRA submit an item for the grid one week which simply says they’ll be consulting on options for the rationalisation and improved management of the state-owned forest estate; and they plan to announce this in 10 days time. A couple of curious people round the table say: ‘What’s this about?’ and tell the DEFRA policy shadow to find out more information, and get a copy of the consultation paper.
Next Friday, there’s a lot more detail in the document about the proposal, which DEFRA now plan to announce in 3 days time, at which point everyone around the table says: “Hold on a minute, they want to privatise the forests?! Get it out of the grid, and set up a meeting asap for the PM and the Secretary of State to discuss it. But tell them under no circumstances is this going ahead next week, and if they’ve briefed any Sunday papers, they’d better un-brief it sharpish or we’ll dump all over it.”
So my question is - if what Steve Hilton told his students at Stanford is true - what on earth has happened to the No10 grid system? It’s clearly not working as it once did, as is occasionally obvious from the confusion over what’s being announced and when, the clashes between different good announcements, and the waste of other good announcements on days when bad news is sure to dominate.
Losing the civil servant master of the grid, Paul Brown MBE - who retired early in the Coalition - would have been a blow, but I’m sure his replacement(s) are just as thorough when it comes to making sure the Upcoming Business document is both exhaustive but digestible. My guess is that the apparent failure of the grid system is much less to do with the quality of the civil service legwork going into it, but about the importance accorded it by the No10 political machine.
Here are two straws in the wind which may support that theory:
1. One of Craig Oliver’s first acts as Director of Communications in No10 was to alter the structure of the grid so the week started on a Sunday not on a Monday. A tiny but significant change, because what it revealed was a mindset that the grid was just a news management tool, and news management for each week starts with what’s in the Sunday papers and who’s going on Marr. Whereas the old system - when the week started when Parliament was sitting - reflected a mindset that the grid was chiefly about controlling government business and announcements, not controlling the media; and
2. I was chatting before Christmas to two relatively young, junior members of Downing Street staff - very bright, pleasant, energetic types - and I asked them in passing: “Who’s chairing the grid meetings these days?” After all, based on past history, it could be Craig Oliver, Francis Maude or Chris Martin (David Cameron’s current PPS). Or based on seniority in today’s No10, it could be Andrew Cooper, Ed Llewellyn or even George Osborne. One of them answered: “I’m not sure”. The other answered: “I don’t know if we still do grid meetings”. Now, as I say, they were junior, but the idea that what used to be the second most important meeting of the week in Downing Street is now one that is barely on the radar of two members of No10 staff seems deeply worrying to me.
We’re forever being told that David Cameron, George Osborne and their teams are devotees of Tony Blair’s style of government, but if they have genuinely ditched or downgraded the key mechanism by which his Downing Street managed the business of government, it is a shocking blindspot in their devotion, and one that needs correcting. Sharpish.
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