Unemployment is high and rising. The economy is gravely troubled, and could get worse. A double-dip recession is possible. At the root of the problem is the Eurozone crisis. But it is not clear what, if anything, we could do to steer events in a favourable direction. Some economic modellers believe that a disorderly collapse of the Euro would cost the UK around ten percent of GDP. Others – including, I suspect, the Prime Minister – argue that if surgery is necessary for a life-threatening ailment, you should have it immediately. There is no consensus, which is hardly surprising. After all the theories and models, no-one knows what will happen. When it does happen, no-one can predict the consequences. Interesting times.
That, of course, is part of an ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. There is a normal consequence of that fatal conjunction: on its next encounter with the electorate, the party in government is thrown out of power. In the UK, that seems unlikely. David Cameron has not seduced the voters, as Tony Blair often did. Nor has he reassured his core supporters, as Margaret Thatcher did. But he seems entrenched in power, "There is no alternative" was one of her favourite phrases (more than twenty years on, everyone still knows whom one means by "her"). Mr Cameron does not use it. Yet he could, without fear of contradiction. In his case, too, there is no alternative.
There are a number of reasons for this. The first, self-evident, is the PM's own strength of intellect and of character. David Cameron has a clear and incisive intelligence, reinforced by intellectual self-confidence. He is good at thinking things through and arguing them through with first-rate advisors (see below). Once he makes up his mind, he does not look over his shoulder. He is considerably more intellectually self-confident than Margaret Thatcher ever was.
He also has a strong team, at various levels. Although he is in charge, there is a troika: the PM, the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary. David Cameron and George Osborne are in constant contact and Messrs Cameron, Hague and Osborne dine regularly. They enjoy each other's company. There is a lot of laughter, but also a lot of serious business. There is no rivalry and total mutual confidence. In the entire history of British government from the time of Robert Walpole, I cannot think of a moment when relationships at the top were so harmonious. In fraught circumstances, that is of inestimable value.
This is not only true at the very top. Forget Walpole: Oliver Letwin has a quality which is unrivalled in more than six hundred years. Since Henry VI founded the College of Our Lady of Eton besides Windsor, Old Etonians have had one distinguishing characteristic. They have a shit's capability. This does not mean that they are all shits; merely that if they had to be, they would know how to be. Oliver is the unique exception. That is why he must be kept away from the voters. He is too pure in heart. But give him a complex problem to work through and think through, and a steely intellect quickly becomes apparent. He is also a man with complete – and justified – intellectual self-confidence. Oliver is seriously under-promoted. Although he attends Cabinet, he is not technically a Cabinet Minister. In his position, most others would feel resentful. Not Oliver. He has his reward, the only one he really cares about: a chance to help the government to succeed. Mr Letwin has an admirable blend of moral and intellectual qualities.
Francis Maude is also formidable. With him and Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet office operates as it ought to: a Prussian general staff ensuring that the Prime Minister has an endless source of intellectual reinforcement. There are also the officials. The Downing Street civil servants enjoy working for David Cameron. He is demanding. On rare occasions, he can be tetchy: never unreasonably so. But meetings start on time. Minutes are taken, as are decisions. The meeting will start with an agenda, and finish by generating another one. The PM is relaxed, but authoritative. Although his manner is breezy and informal, no-one ever forgets that he is the Prime Minister. Gus O'Donnell, the outgoing Head of the Civil Service, was an outstanding public servant. Jeremy Heywood, his successor, is equally good.
Finally, there is that derided group of persons: political advisors. Mr Cameron has assembled a strong team. Edward Llewellyn, his chief of staff, is the Platonic idea of a private secretary. Self-effacing and unobtrusive – he is short enough to share the cat-flap with Larry, the No.10 moggy – Eddie has no ideological agenda. He goes to work to make things work. Witty and tireless, he also possesses one of the world's most impressive contacts' book. It is hardly surprising that he has the PM's total confidence.
Steve Hilton is a different character. A few weeks ago, there were photographs of him in the papers, setting off for No.10 on a bicycle, in shorts. One wonders what the average compulsorily collared-and-tied middle class Tory voter would have made of that. This very senior Downing Street advisor looked like a furtive scoutmaster about to leg it before angry parents and the rozzers caught up with him.
Emotional, volatile and truculent, Steve is never without an agenda. He sees himself as the radical conscience of the Cameron regime and he often expresses his contempt for the constraints of process and bureaucracy. There are times when this could come dangerously close to self-indulgence. I have heard reports of his being gratuitously rude to Ministers (That said, any Minister who puts up with rudeness from an advisor, however senior, deserves all he gets). "Grit in the oyster" is not only a cliche. In Steve Hilton's case, it is an understatement. There is enough grit for an entire oyster bed. But government needs roughage. After the Brown terror, David Cameron has restored order and harmony to Downing Street. So Steve is useful, to ensure that there are a few bracing discords.
There are plenty of other first-rate people in No.10. Paul Kirby, the new head of the policy Unit, is excellent, as is Patrick Rock, who acts as a walking gun. Patrick combines qualities not always found together. Although he is not ideological, he is intensely political. He also appears to have a total command of detail and of the legislative process. George Osborne and William Hague also have some outstanding advisors, among the best of their genus. If one could buy shares in people, we should all fill our boots. At the Foreign Office, Denzil Davidson and Arminka Helic are both superb. Their counterparts at the Treasury, Rupert Harrison and Eleanor Shawcross, have one advantage. As their department has been continuously in action and under fire, they have had more opportunities to win gallantry medals. They have both taken them. They are the best special advisors since…the young David Cameron. Look what happened to him. If either Eleanor or Rupert – or both – should become Prime Minister, I hope that someone will remember this article.
In the shorter run, I will no doubt attract sneers. It is not fashionable to praise advisors or officials. "If these people are that good" some will be saying "why is the country in such a mess"? To that, there is only one answer. If we did not have the benefit of some of the ablest people in Britain at the core of government, we would be in a far worse mess.