Today’s Times reports that Matthew Elliott, the founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance and former Chief Executive of Vote Leave, ‘is in advanced negotiations over a senior role at Conservative Campaign Headquarters…most probably as party vice-chairman’.
If so, it won’t be the first time the Conservative Party has considered bringing him on board – in 2012, David Cameron wanted to hire him to work in Downing Street, but a leak of the news led Nick Clegg to veto the appointment.
I worked for Elliott for three years, as Campaign Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance from 2007-2010, and can well understand why CCHQ might want to recruit him as part of their operation. He is imaginative and extremely driven – as evidenced by his quite rare status as a serial political entrepreneur.
The fruits of his effectiveness are there for all to see, whether you like them or not: the TPA shifted the national debate on public spending, No2AV efficiently upended Yes2AV’s poll lead, and most notably, of course, Vote Leave changed history by winning against the odds in the EU referendum. Those victories haven’t always endeared him to people in power – not least Osborne, Clegg and, ultimately, Cameron – but there have long been voices in the Conservative Party suggesting that it might be wiser to get him on board rather than keep ending up as the opposition to his campaigns.
I wonder, though, if The Times‘s interpretation of his mooted role in the Party is entirely accurate.
The newspaper’s headline suggests he would be ‘in charge of [the] Tory shake-up’, and the body of the story elaborates that his responsibility would be ‘to overhaul the Tory machine and reassure Leave-supporting MPs and activists’. The presence of Vote Leave’s chief executive at the top table of CCHQ would certainly help to do the latter, no matter what the specific post was. But ‘to overhaul the Tory machine’ sounds like something a direct employee of the Party or consultant would be doing full-time – whereas the job The Times suggests, vice-chairman of the Party, is a voluntary post.
There are, of course, already senior voluntary officials whose responsibility it is to oversee the reform of the Conservative machine and the implementation of the Pickles review’s recommendations (presumably, though there are few signs that is happening as yet). Sir Mick Davis was appointed as Chief Executive over the summer with that exact brief, backed by the appointment of David Brownlow as vice-chairman for campaigning. Perhaps The Times knows something I don’t, but I’d be surprised if another new vice-chairman was appointed solely to duplicate those responsibilities.
Let’s look again at the role that Elliott was first tipped for back in 2012, which a Downing Street source at the time described to the Telegraph as follows:
“David [Cameron] feels Matthew is in touch with what ordinary people are thinking and wanted to draft him in, not as a replacement for Steve Hilton, as has been suggested, but as director of external relations…The idea was to have him keep an eye on how the Government is presenting itself and to be the point man for business leaders, think tanks, charities and people in the Conservative movement.”
That sounds very similar to one of the ConservativeHome proposals for Conservative Party reform that I put forward in September:
Create a new outreach programme to woo or build allied third party groups
The “red tide” of third party groups which were broadly allied to Labour – or, at minimum, opposed to the Conservatives – took a heavy toll in the election. From deploying activists, to driving high levels of organic sharing on social media, to well-organised union campaigns, such as banners in schools and letters about cuts from headteachers, the number of groups lined up with the Opposition was in stark contrast to the small number allied to the Conservatives. Labour’s success or otherwise in this field is not something that can be stopped. But the Conservative Party must do more to bolster its own hinterland.
Back in 2014, Paul Goodman explored the possibility of dividing CCHQ into a campaigning organisation and a longer-term, strategic foundation that focused on developing the Conservative Party’s relationships with groups in civil society. Whether that approach is best, or whether the existing CCHQ simply needs a unit dedicated to the task, there is a need for a new outreach programme to woo – or encourage the founding of – third party groups that are in broad alliance with the Party’s aims. To do so will require talented people, and just as importantly a relaxed view of ideological differences. CCHQ cannot view organisations on the Centre Right primarily and resentfully through the lens of where they disagree with the Party – it should focus on where there is common ground and welcome their help. Sometimes that might mean taking difficult decisions, such as accepting donors giving money to organisations other than the central Party.
ConservativeHome’s reform proposals fed into the Party’s analysis of how to improve its operation, and several of them – including this one – were explicitly supported by the Pickles Review.
Cameron saw Elliott as someone who could be effective at outreach between the Government and those right-leaning third parties, and five years on there is more evidence than ever that the Party needs to find new ways to balance out Labour’s booming movement politics. Elliott has form: he set up a series of effective third-party groups on the right – the TPA, Big Brother Watch, BrexitCentral, No2AV, Vote Leave – and has spent years deeply embedded in the wider conservative movement, working with think-tanks, pressure groups, academics, businesspeople and donors.
If the Conservatives plan to appoint him as a vice-chairman, running a new outreach programme would seem the natural role for him to take on.