Rule One of the Conservative Party is that the CRD always wins. If you doubt it, read this profile of it on this site by Andrew Gimson, himself a former CRD graduate. Or compare the old Number Ten team and the new one.
Out of Downing Street go David Cameron, George Osborne, Ed Llewellyn, Kate Fall, Gaby Bertin and Giles Kenningham, former CRD members all…
…and in it come former CRD members Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill, Joanna Penn, Stephen Parkinson, Chris Wilkins, Alex Dawson and Katie Perrior…
(…while Sheridan Westlake, also once of the CRD, stays put – a still point in a turning world.)
Parkinson, Theresa May’s Political Secretary, once sat diagonally opposite Stephen Gilbert, who not so long ago was David Cameron’s, in Conservative Campaign Headquarters…
…while Joanna Penn, now May’s Deputy Chief of Staff, had only to swivel round in her CCHQ chair to see Hilton and Fall; meanwhile, Hill sat next at the very next desk to Bertin. The CRD is dead. Long live the CRD!
But there are differences as well as similarities between the old regime and the new one. As can be seen from ConservativeHome’s rough guide to Who’s Who and What’s What in Theresa May’s Downing Street senior team.
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Co-Chief of Staff: Fiona Hill
Hill, previously Fiona Cunningham, was a journalist with Sky News and the Scotsman before making her way to CRD during the Cameron years, variously covering Work and Pensions, Health and Home Affairs. She began work as one of Theresa May’s SpAds as soon as the latter became Home Secretary – and left after a spectacular bust-up with Michael Gove over extremism policy. (She resigned; he apologised.)
She then wrote a campaigning report on Modern Slavery for the Centre for Social Justice, and worked as a director of lobbyists Lexington Communications. “A sharp operator with a sharp brain (and, occasionally, a sharp tongue) she is absolutely loyal to the new Prime Minister,” Mark Wallace wrote after her initial appointment. “Now she is back, and will it seems serve as the yin to [Nick] Timothy’s yang.
As he added, “Hill’s primary focus in the Home Office was on communications, while Timothy’s was on policy, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a similar general division of responsibilities – but each has some expertise across both fields, and they both know that the two are inextricably linked when developing and maintaining a strategy”.
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Co-Chief of Staff: Nick Timothy
Timothy joined the CRD after University, headed its political section, worked for May, assisted at PMQs prep with Iain Duncan Smith, left Westminster to do “a series of policy jobs in trade organisations”, went back to work for May as Chief of Staff after the 2005 election, and became Deputy Director of CRD during the run-up to the 2010 one.
In the eyes of some who worked there at the time, he was the CRD’s effective chief – if only because James O’Shaughnessy, the Director (now Lord O’Shaughnessy) was co-leading the Party’s Policy Unit. After the election, he served with Hill as May’s SpAd, earning a reputation for minding her interests unrelentingly and developing policy strategically.
After the 2015 election, he left the Home Office to head the New Schools Network. He was also a columnist for this site, which made the shape of his thinking public. Timothy’s main interest is in helping hard-toiling, hard-pressed voters on average incomes, perhaps from his own stomping-ground of the West Midlands, where this former Aston Villa season ticket holder was raised. His importance to May can scarcely be overestimated.
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Deputy Chief of Staff: Joanna Penn
Penn was in the CRD at the same time as Hill, specialising for a period in Work and Pensions, before working as a Policy Adviser for May in government (part of the discreet expanding roll-out of political aides); leaving for the work for Africa Governance Initiative (set up originally by Tony Blair) in Sierra Leone and Malawi, and studying at the Kennedy School at Harvard.
She has thus jumped through two hoops with Hill and Timothy. First, she was based at the CRD. Second, she worked directly for May. This is a very tight-knit group of politically-motivated men and women, as Harold Wilson almost put it. It is unlikely that anyone will succeed in slipping a piece of rice-paper between any of the three of them.
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Political Secretary: Stephen Parkinson
Parkinson sat next to Gavin Barwell, now Housing Minister, at CRD at one point – while opposite Gilbert, his predecessor in his present post. He helped to brief David Cameron for PMQs, covered the Home Affairs desk, and worked on the target seats campaign in 2010.
Regarded by some insiders as the real hero of the successful No to AV campaign, he has also been Director of Research at the Centre for Policy Studies and worked for a while for Quiller, before moving to the Home Office to work with Timothy as a May SpAd. Like Timothy, he was purged from the candidates’ list in the last Parliament after refusing to break the SpAd code of conduct. Both were later exonerated.
Like him again, he voted Leave in June: indeed, he was Vote Leave’s director of campaigns, in effect, and thus played a major role in a second successful referendum campaign. And like him yet again, his origins lie outside the south-east Tory heartlands: he hails from Tyneside (and was the candidate for Tyneside North in 2010).
Parkinson is unencumbered by the party campaigning role that Gilbert held, and will be a classic Political Secretary in the mould of, say, Stephen Sherbourne or Howell James (who held the post under Margaret Thatcher and John Major respectively), handling relations with Conservative MPs, peers, CCHQ and the wider Tory family.
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Policy Director: John Godfrey
Godfrey is different from many of those in Number 10 in being of an older generation, and having spent more time outside politics. Yes, he was a Home Office SpAd – but to Douglas Hurd, in a now-distant political age, along with David Lidington (now Leader of the House). And, yes, he has been a Parliamentary candidate – but the best part of 20 years ago or more, fighting Glasgow Maryhill in 1992 and the 1995 by-election in Perth and Kinross.
As Mark Wallace has written, Godfrey then “focused on his career in communications in the City, culminating in a nine year stretch at Legal & General. There he built a reputation as a likeable and effective communicator, who gave the insurer sizeable clout in Whitehall through well-planned interventions”.
Godfrey is Camilla Cavendish’s successor as Head of the Policy Unit. The intention is for it to do more blue-sky thinking than previously, when it closely monitored the departments on Number Ten’s behalf. One view is that May’s interventionist record at the Home Office, and her establishment of three new core Cabinet committees, will require the unit to revert to type – unless the Cabinet Office fills the gap.
Again, there is a Timothy connection. The two men met over a think-tank dinner, and the then Home Office SpAd under May and the former one under Hurd hit it off. Godfrey’s deputies are Natalie Black, a civil servant, and Will Tanner, who replaced Timothy as a May SpAd after the 2010 election.
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Political Director: Alex Dawson
While Chris Wilkins will take charge of planning, Dawson will help lead on politics. Needless to say, he’s another CRD graduate – heading it; helping to prep David Cameron for PMQs and, according to one report from the time, finding “ways to attack and rebut Labour”.
This account also named “former Cameron speechwriter Nick Hargrave”. After a period with Crosby Textor Fullbrook, Hargrave is back in Downing Street, working alongside Dawson with Richard Chew (another survivor of the Cameron era).
Dawson is also a former May SpAd, working with her in the Home Office in the aftermath of the 2015 election. With Timothy and Hall, he will help to shape the political messages, negative and positive, that will be briefed out to the media by the Downing Street communications team.
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Strategy Director: Chris Wilkins
Wilkins is the successor of Ameet Gill: he will run the Downing Street grid. And he is yet another member of the CRD network – starting out as a Commons researcher at much the same time as Timothy. There and at the CRD, he assisted David Davis, Andrew Lansley and May, serving as an Assistant Campaign Director to Lynton Crosby in the 2005 election.
He afterwards worked with Populus, before returning to work for a year as a SpAd for Nicky Morgan. Here’s what Iain Dale wrote about him on ConHome at the time.
“The appointment of Chris Wilkins as special advisor to Nicky Morgan is a very welcome one. I worked with Chris for six months when David Davis was running for Tory leader in 2005 and have huge respect for him. He’s quiet, measured, thoughtful and full of wise advice. It’s almost as if Nicky has said: “Get me the exact antithesis of Dominic Cummings.”
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Communications Director: Katie Perrior
Perrior advised May when the latter was Chairman under Iain Duncan Smith. As Mark has reported, “she later worked for David Davis during his time as Shadow Home Secretary, before setting up her own PR consultancy, iNHouse. Perrior and her business partner, Jo Tanner, won a contract to run the communications for Boris Johnson’s 2008 London mayoral campaign, and more recently established HerSay, a directory providing female experts to broadcasters”.
“When the leadership race began, she was brought in by May to lead media relations for her campaign.
Perrior is well-connected to the lobby through her day job and socially: regular Conservative Party Conference attendees may recognise her as part of the team running The London Lounge, a conference facility which has been known to conclude with a karaoke party attended by MPs, SpAds and journalists.”
A former Bexley councillor, she was appointed last year to the board of the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, the body overseeing the construction of the flagship Garden City development. Just as Godfrey’s role in the Policy Unit will be strategic, so reportedly will Perrior’s – or at least that’s the intention.
Lizzie Louden, formerly a SpAd to Iain Duncan Smith and then a key member of the Vote Leave communications team, is Press Secretary. Tom Swarbrick will be Head of Broadcast. Liz Sanderson is Head of Features – in other words, the person responsible for projecting May the woman, rather than merely May the politician, to voters. It was Sanderson who, when working on the Mail on Sunday, wrote the carefully-controlled story that broke the news of May’s diabetes.
Government Relations Director: Chris Brannigan
Brannigan is a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. He served on eleven operational tours. A Daily Telegraph report report of 2003, under the headline “Desert Rats swarm into Basra”, describes how a Royal Scots Dragoon Guards battle group jointly executed an assault on the city.
“When a Challenger 2 commanded by Major Chris Brannigan crashed through the gates and Irish Guards Warriors arrived, dozens of Fedayeen suddenly emerged firing rocket propelled grenades,” the paper reported. At any rate, Brannigan’s experience runs wider than that of some of his senior colleagues – doubly so, since he has also managed an art gallery which deals in Tudor, Stuart and North European Old Masters.
Brannigan was shortlisted to be the Conservative candidate for the Hampshire Police and Crime Commissioner, post and also made the final in Richmond, Yorkshire (which was won by Rishi Sunak). Timothy and Parkinson were also interviewed for the seat. Brannigan’s will replace Bertin as Number Ten’s point person with civil society, interest groups and business, assisted in the later task by Jimmy McLoughlin.
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Four key themes:
- The centrality of women. Half of the Chiefs of Staff is a woman. Their deputy is a woman. The Head of Communications is a woman. Two-thirds of the most senior members of the media team are women. Women hold three of the nine main posts above, including two of the most central ones.
- The importance of Timothy. The co-Chief of Staff is crucial not only because his vision helps to shape the Government’s political strategy; or because he has driven the recasting of whole departments (amalgamating climate change with energy) and the reworking of others (the new focus of aid on “the national interest”), or even because his hand is apparent in some of the biggest Government decisions, such as the delay of Hinckley Point. All eight of the other most senior Downing Street aides have connections with him that pre-date May taking office as Prime Minister.
- The CRD connection endures… Of these nine senior aides, at least seven are CRD graduates. Hill, Timothy, Penn Parkinson, Dawson, Wilkins and Perrior.
- …But with fewer “posh boys” and a more provinical feel. The proportion of state school-educated people in the most senior posts looks larger, and for better or worse we have yet to identify an old Etonian. One of the co-Chiefs of Staff and the Political Secretary have previously been purged from the Candidates’ List (though both are now back on it). This is, to put it mildly, rather unusual, if not unique.