By Paul Goodman
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I'm in a position to offer this morning to offer an insight into current thinking in Number 10. Tim Montgomerie touched on its current charm offensive yesterday, of which the Jo Johnson appointment was a part. I'm not going to comment on this thinking – though I will certainly return to the subject soon – but relay it as straightforwardly as I can.
- Number 10 claims that it's in a better place with Conservative MPs. First, it cites the appointment of Jo Johnson and the new policy board. (And there are clearly more changes in Downing Street to come.) Second, it says that the introduction of political Cabinets before Cabinet has given the Conservative operation a more political focus. Third, it stresses the degree of contact between David Cameron and Tory backbenchers – regular gatherings of the Parliamentary Party (sometimes chaired by Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, and sometimes chaired by George Young the Chief Whip); repeated meetings with Ministers of State and with Under-Secretaries – every six weeks or so in the case of the latter, I was told; the Prime Minister's weekly trip to the members dining room after each PMQ session. "No Conservative leader," I was told, "has done more to make himself available to Conservative MPs".
The political Cabinet of Conservative Cabinet Ministers is essentially an extension of the 8.30am morning meeting each Tuesday, which is followed by Cabinet proper. Number 10 denies that a smaller, formal group of seven senior Ministers ever met regularly. Claims of a "Chequers Group" to plan election and other matters, which emanate from CCHQ, are met with puzzlement by senior Downing Street figures. My impression is that Number 10 wants more of Lynton Crosby, who at present is working part-time.
- Downing Street says that it senses "a bit of a feel of '91" – the year before John Major's surprise election victory against the odds. It doesn't underestimate Ed Miliband, who showed during the Parliamentary tributes to Margaret Thatcher that he can rise to the occasion, and a source told me last week that the Tory machine is worried that he might grab hold of any 2015 election TV debates by the scruff of the neck. But there is a view in the circles around Cameron that Miliband "spent his first year of so doing nothing very much", and that this is now catching up with him – as his problems over welfare have shown. "The Prime Minister is pumped up, and believes he can win," I was told. Number 10 also draws comfort from Obama's victory at a time of economic difficulty.
All this suggests that Downing Street would definitely have preferred to win outright in 2010 – a view it puts with some force. But it is not prepared to concede that governing with the Liberal Democrats has no advantages, arguing that tackling the deficit, or putting pension reform in place, or reforming care for older people requires cross-party consent to work, and that coalition brings pluses with it from that point of view.
- Cameron's inner circle is beginning to turn its mind to the run-up to 2015. Should the Coalition go all the way to the April of that year? Should it break up earlier, as I and others would prefer? My sense is that Number 10 would prefer to go all the way, but that it is prepared to consider other possibilities – for example, encouraging backbenchers to open up "clear blue water" in the Commons over welfare, immigration, crime and the ECHR. There are three points of interest. On an EU referendum bill, there is a range of options from not publishing one at all through simply publishing one to publishing one – and then introducing it. On tax breaks for marriage, there are signals that the policy will be implemented, perhaps as early as the autumn: "The Prime Minister is the First Lord of the Treasury," I was told – a clear dig at George Osborne's long-standing scepticism about the policy. On aid, I get no sense that Downing Street intends to back off the 0.7% target.
"It's not as though Clare Short is in charge," I was told. In other words, Number 10 believes that the policy is delivering practicable benefits, such as countering the offensive of Al-Shabaab in Somalia. My take is that Number 10 is strongly committed to the policy, which precedes Cameron's leadership. (Lord Ashcroft offers a contrary view on this site this morning.)