By Paul Goodman
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A strategist isn't a Chief of Staff. James Forsyth confirms in today's Spectator that Downing Street wants to bring in Lynton Crosby. However, it isn't clear what Number 10 wants him to do. Some seem to believe that he should run the whole Downing Street operation. This is to confuse what a strategist is. A strategist is essentially a full-time campaign manager. From the first day of the Government's term until its last, he campaigns 24 hours a day and seven days a week, or as near to it as is possible, to get that Government re-elected. The model has worked better elsewhere in the Anglosphere than here. None of our domestic strategists on the centre-right – Steve Hilton, Matthew Elliott, Mark Fullbrook, James Frayne, Dominic Cummings – have been campaign managers for a government or opposition: the last has come closest. Mr Crosby in Australia, or Karl Rove or James Carville or Lee Atwater in America, have done so, or have worked for that rough American equivalent, the President or Presidential candidate.
- A successful British political party doesn't have to have a strategist. New Labour didn't flourish at the polls because it was masterminded by a strategist. It was given direction by a small trio of powerful politicians – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and Peter Mandelson. Alistair Campbell was not a campaign manager, though he was an unusually strategic head of media; nor was Jonathan Powell, though he was a authoritative Chief of Staff. Nor did Margaret Thatcher need a strategist: in a sense, she was the strategist – providing leadership from the very top. In Government, she had two strong assistants at the end – the formidable Charles Powell, who though her Foreign Affairs advisor ended up assuming some Chief of Staff functions, and Bernard Ingham, a tough Press Secretary who knew her mind. And in Opposition, she was heavily steered by Gordon Reece and Tim Bell on how to present herself. But, though she worked closely at various times from other politicians – Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit, Cecil Parkinson – it was essentially Thatcher contra mundum.
- Strategy is no substitute for mission. To describe Lady Thatcher as her own strategist, as I did above, reaches the target but doesn't quite hit the gold. This is because she didn't have a strategy so much as a mission – to rescue the British economy. Creating what David Cameron called an "Aspiration Nation" through privatisation, the sale of council sales and wider share ownership was a big part of this still bigger whole. Mr Blair's focus was less on rescuing his country than his party, but it was a mission none the less, founded on a "irreducible core" of social democratic beliefs. A successful party thus needs first a mission, and only then a strategy to put it into effect – first, making it happen through legislation, executive decisions, appointments, etc; second, communicating it through new media, speeches, events, photo-ops and so on – and finally delivering the message to voters by means of the campaigning machine. If the party is to have a strategist, he must have clear overall charge of all this.
It follows that:
- This Government needs a mission, not just a strategy for effecting it. It is fair to say that David Cameron conveyed no clear sense of mission in opposition. In government, he began with two strong subordinates with two different senses of mission: George Osborne, who holds a minimalist view (that the Government should eliminate the structural deficit and concentrate on a few big public service reforms) and Steve Hilton, who has a maximalist one (that as well as eliminating the structural deficit it should reform practically the whole public sector in one term). Hilton lost patience with the grind and pace of government and quit. After seven years, Mr Cameron seems to have settled on the "Aspiration Nation" ideal of his speech to last month's party conference. I would have preferred him to concentrate on the bigger strand of Mrs Thatcher's message in government – reviving Britain's economy and restoring its self-confidence – but now that he has apparently settled on a mission it's best for him to stick at it.
- The appointment of a new strategist won't work unless order is brought to Downing Street. If Mr Cameron abandons the course on which he's now apparently set, the appointment of even the best strategist in the world won't save him. But getting some order into Downing Street would do no harm and help a lot. The central problem is that no-one seems, or has ever seemed, to be clearly in charge. Did a command from Steve Hilton outrank one from Andy Coulson, or a view from Andrew Cooper – the current head of strategy – hold more authority than one from Jeremy Heywood? As the Guardian reported a source in Number 10 saying earlier this week: "It is an interesting question who people report to and who they answer to." No wonder there are so many complaints about Mr Heywood, a civil servant, taking strategic control of the Government.
- Any new strategist must be based in Downing Street and have complete control of the grid – but musn't have his function muddled with that of the Chief of Staff. It would be very tempting to appoint any strategist to CCHQ, which is where Mr Crobsy worked from before the 2005 election. This would be a mistake, and merely add another cook to all those messing around with the broth. If appointed, a strategist needs to work out of Number Ten. He must have complete control of the strategic grid. His decisions on message and machine need to be final, and he must work closely with Stephen Gilbert, the Prime Minister's Political secretary and target seats supremo. Andrew Cooper, the present Head of Strategy, is essentially a thinker and a pollster, not a full-time campaign manager. There is no point in appointing one over his head if such a person isn't up to the job and is just one more cook in the teeming kitchen. Mr Crosby is thus the only show in town. He may not be perfect, but would impose authority, direction and can-do on the present muddle.