A code of conduct governs Special Advisers (SpAds) – and is central to the controversy over the suspension of Nick Timothy and Stephen Parkinson from the candidates list. It says that “if [special advisers] wish to take part in a … by-election campaign, or to help in a party headquarters or research unit during such a campaign, they must first resign their appointment”.
The case for the prosecution is that both were told by CCHQ that Sue Gray, the head of Ethics and Propriety in the Cabinet Office, believed that telephone canvassing in the Rochester and Strood by-election would not be a breach of the code – as an earlier note from Laurence Mann, David Cameron’s political private secretary, had made clear. Furthermore, CCHQ says, all other Conservative SpAds were willing to follow Mann’s advice. And it makes a final point – that both Timothy and Parkinson telephone canvassed during the Newark by-election last summer. So if not breaching the code is so important to them, adds CCHQ, why didn’t they kick up a fuss at the time?
The case for the defence is that Mann, as a political appointee, has no authority to rule on the code, and has issued contradictory instructions during this Parliament. An even earlier note from him last year, which ConservativeHome has seen, specifically says that SpAds must not undertake “telephone campaigning or door-to-door canvassing”. In addition, it is claimed that Gray did not respond to requests for clarification from Timothy and Parkinson, thus refusing in effect to back up Mann’s note. There are also claims that, contrary to CCHQ’s line, other Tory SpAds also refused to telephone canvass in the by-election, and that more were unhappy – precisely because of the wording of the code.
As for Newmark, sources close to the May SpAds point out that Fiona Cunningham (a former May SpAd) resigned only a few days after the by-election. Why? Precisely, the argument runs, because she breached the code during the long-running row between May and Michael Gove over counter-extremism policy – which in turn made them more meticulous about observing the code.
Whichever case sways you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, there can be no doubt about the conclusion of the story so far. David Cameron believes that Grant Shapps – for it was he – was right to suspend the May SpAds from the list. (Otherwise it would surely not have happened.) And Theresa May thinks that Shapps was wrong. The low-level hostilities between Downing Street and the Home Office have flared up once again. Mortar fire is being exchanged between one and the other, rather in the manner of Indian and Pakistani troops lobbing explosives at each other across the line of control in Kashmir.
What is to be made of all this? There are three conclusions to be drawn.
First, the policing of the code is a mess, and the Cabinet Office ought to pull its socks up. The wording of the code is clearly inconsistent with telephone canvassing. If it has had a change of heart, then the code should be changed – rather than officials like Mann being left in a very difficult position. It is quoted this morning guardedly saying that “special advisers have always been able in their own time and outside of office hours to take part in back office activities…This activity was done outside of office hours” – which returns us to the question of whether telephone canvassing is a back office activity or not.
Second, the message sent by Shapps’s suspension is that past service counts for little in CCHQ: today’s need is all. Timothy has been a branch chairman and a local council candidate. Parkinson was a Parliamentary candidate in 2010. Their treatment is part of a pattern whereby CCHQ has become the property of the party leadership, which in turn is fixated on the next election to the exclusion of all else. Energy, people and money are hurled at a minority of constituencies – in this case, the 40/40 and by-election seats – and the short-term thus triumphs over the medium, let alone the long. As this anniversary year of the First World War draws to an end, a parallel comes to mind.
What about the seats that may become marginal? The constituencies that are “safe” today (but may not be tomorrow) whose activists complain of a shortage of resources and speakers? The city seats in the north where there is no real Conservative presence at all? The outreach teams to specialist target voters – such as ethnic minority ones – most of whom are fired after each election ends? The long-term investment in building up support among the professions, the universities and the institutions of civil society – charities, campaign groups, unions? Where is our centre-right equivalent of Battleground Texas? We repeat: CCHQ should be divided, and money for the long-term ring-fenced.
Yes, membership is up. And there are good developments, such as Team 2015. But these tend to be targeted on those 40/40 seats and by-elections…which returns us to Timothy, Parkinson, their suspension, and the widening gap between Downing Street and the Home Office. Not so long ago, Cameron would surely have been wary of further straining his relationship with May. However, Downing Street will have picked up some of the recent criticism of Home Secretary – over border control, delayed reports, and the European Arrest Warrant, including on this site. Perhaps it no longer fears her. If so, I am not sure that this is right. But either way, it bodes ill.