Andrew Goodfellow was Director of the Conservative Research Department from May 2015 to June 2017. He writes in a personal capacity.
There is a natural tendency to think that one’s own generation of the Conservative Research Department represents the apotheosis of how the organisation should function. This results in wounded pride when someone with a different experience challenges that perception.
Nevertheless, I think that Andrew Gimson’s piece on this site yesterday, ‘The Rudd debacle highlights a problem. Many of the Government’s special advisers are no good”, misses the mark in a few crucial ways.
Gimson’s general point, that CRD should be the training ground for Conservative special advisers, is absolutely correct. Where I would take exception is to the idea that CRD no longer performs that function effectively.
The political and media landscape of 2018 differs considerably in what it demands of the Conservative machine, compared to the more sedate 1980s. The demands of ferocious 24-hour rolling news, the social media churn, and journalists desperate for content, means that the research department needs to shape its material and output to the world as we find it, rather than how we would like it to be. CRD in the 1980s no doubt had its challenges, but there was at least the benefit of waiting for the next day’s newspapers to see how a politician had dropped the ball, rather than watching it unfold on Twitter in real time.
Whilst teaching CRD recruits the noble art of political research is vital, we now have to apply the results of said research in more forms than the traditional policy brief or press release. The Conservative Research Department has three core functions: policy research, briefing, and opposition research. This provides the material for politicians appearing on broadcast, press office rebuttals, and challenging our Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents. This all needs to be done at speed, and with impeccable precision.
CRD’s role is to provide the political support that Conservative politicians need to win the political argument. Gimson entirely correctly observes that ‘gifts of intellect are needed to render under time pressure a mass of disparate material into a short, coherent and accurate summary’. I maintain that this is still absolutely what CRD desk officers do, and do well, but under even more exaggerated time pressures. Some days running CRD felt more like managing an air traffic control tower, rather than the Oxbridge seminar feel that other generations of staffers were fortunate enough to experience.
But some things about CRD remain the same. When Denis Healey famously compared being attacked by Geoffrey Howe to ‘being savaged by a dead sheep’, he preceded it by accusing Howe of ‘ploughing through that tedious and tendentious farrago of moth-eaten cuttings presented to him by the Conservative Research Department’.
Such moth-eaten cuttings, prepared for political deployment, remain at the heart of the output of CRD desk officers. Although admittedly, when the subject is Jeremy Corbyn they tend to be a little less tedious. Special advisers recruited from CRD benefit from the same training they always have done, the difference is that now they have to use it in a more complex, fast-moving world.
On the policy front, the Conservative Party benefits from a vibrant ecosystem of think tanks generating new ideas – whether it is the Centre for Policy Studies, Policy Exchange, or newer ventures like Onward. It would be unwise for CRD to expend resources and energy to try to compete with these well-funded and equipped organisations, when there are more immediate political battles to be fought.
It is far more important for example, for CRD’s Treasury desk officer to have at their fingertips everything that John McDonnell has ever said on the subject of tax, than it is for them to construct an elegant solution to the inconsistent application of VAT to hot foods.
One point that Lord Lexden makes is entirely fair – the idea that government ministers have a tendency to poach promising CRD desk officers before their natural time. This is a perennial problem, but was exacerbated in the 2015-17 period where we experienced three reshuffles in three years, each of which led to CRD being raided for talent. However, it would be a far more damning indictment of the research department if ministers did not want to hire its staff at all.
None of us should be averse to self-criticism, but nor should we treat the past with rose-tinted glasses. Because of the political heights that Rab Butler, Iain Macleod, David Cameron and George Osborne went on to scale, it is deceptively easy to think that their modern ex-CRD counterparts are somehow diminished by comparison.But I strongly suspect that in 25 years’ time, we will hold names like Alex Dawson, Keelan Carr and Meg Powell-Chandler in similar esteem.