- Invite all frontbenchers to propose new policies for their portfolios in preparation for presenting them to a new and formal policy approval process.
- Ensure that all frontbenchers have one bilateral meeting with the party leader at least once a year.
- Use Francis Maude’s new implementation office to give every frontbencher full access to the training and support they need to be confident ministers-in-waiting.
A constant complaint of Conservative activists is that the shadow cabinet and frontbench are pretty anonymous. Only five shadow cabinet ministers registered more than a 0.5% showing in our recent survey of party conference performers. There are all sorts of reasons for this problem. British politics is increasingly presidential and the media are not much interested in anyone other than the leader and a small handful of others. Some of the problem also has much to do with the scale of frontbenchers’ outside interests… but that’s a subject we’ve addressed enough already.
Media coverage is not, of course, the only way of judging the impact of frontbenchers although Iain Dale’s ‘Media Tarts Lists’ are always worth a scan. Shadow cabinet ministers can also make a difference by providing the party with cut-through policies and breakthrough scrutiny of their opposite numbers’ performance. Nick Herbert, for example, has been terrific in recent days. He’s been all over the media; first attacking Labour on early prisoner release and then for failing to deport foreign convicts.
At Tuesday’s press conference, David Cameron confirmed that the policy groups were being wound up. This is an excellent opportunity to give shadow cabinet ministers some real opportunities to develop policies in their portfolio areas. For the first two years of Project Cameron the existence of the policy groups process made it hard for them to be creative. That has all changed. Mr Cameron should issue a direct instruction to all frontbench teams to develop new policies – particularly micro policies that can be marketed via the internet.
These policies should then be presented and discussed within a new,
more formal assessment structure. Iain Duncan Smith found the shadow
cabinet too large for policy discussions when he was leader and
appointed a team of ten people to a policy board. That ten included
Oliver Letwin, David Davis, Michael Howard, David Willetts, Greg Clark
and, on a rotating basis, every shadow minister whose portfolio was
affected. It ensured that policies were properly assessed. Shadow
ministers find the current process too opaque. Decisions appear to be
taken by a very small number of people and sometimes without
consultation. A new policy formulation process needs to be instituted.
A second recommendation within this area should include at least a
once-a-year meeting between David Cameron and every frontbencher. A
number of frontbenchers have had no serious conversation with the party
leader since they were appointed to the frontbench in November 2005.
This isn’t great for morale and I’m sure David Cameron would be wiser
for have a once-a-year bilateral with each frontbencher.
The third idea is already underway. Last October we welcomed
the establishment of the Conservatives’ Implementation Office. Francis
Maude, with Greg Clark, has responsibility for this Office. Mr Maude
is, I understand, currently recruiting personnel and advisers for this
office. It will be responsible for helping frontbenchers understand
what it means to be a minister and will help them beef up policies
written for a political publication into policies that can actually be
implemented in government. In due course, key journalists like Peter
Riddell should be invited to inspect this process. It will help show
that the Conservative Party is a grown-up government-in-waiting. The
importance of Francis’ work is largely long-term, however. If he and
Greg do the job well, the next Conservative government won’t be so
bedevilled by the incompetence associated with the Blair-Brown years.
The implementation office will be useful for winning a first term – it
could be vital for helping to secure a second term.
Idea #3 in this series: Osborne for Chairman