By Tim Montgomerie
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Earlier this week The Spectator's James Forsyth reported that the PM's trusted aide Gaby Bertin would return from maternity leave to run a new Department of External Relations. The appointment is the latest attempt to strengthen the Downing Street operation, including the appointment of The Sun's Graeme Wilson as press secretary. A Department of External Relations – based on the White House model – has long been proposed by ConHome (also here and here) as a way of ensuring effective management of relationships with strategic opinion-formers, including third party organisations and charities. Time will tell if this DExR will get adequate resources and whether Gaby Bertin will be empowered to build long-term relations with groups like the RSPB, FSB and think tanks – or whether she'll be constantly pulled into day-to-day responding to events. That caution aside, its formation is welcome news.
Without claiming that we were in any way the only source of the advice, the DExR's formation is a useful moment to reflect on the number of ConHome recommendations that have been adopted by Downing Street over recent times. Here are ten that quickly spring to mind…
- The rebalancing of the Tory message: From our first days ConHome has never been against some kind of Tory modernisation. A party that has only won 31%, 32%, 33% and 36% of the vote at four successive elections clearly has some deep problems. What was never sensible, however, was to downgrade popular doorstep Tory policies and, instead, try and convert Guardian readers by focusing on climate change and civil liberties. What was needed was to twin the traditional Tory concerns with regard to Europe, tax, immigration and especially welfare with a concern for the economic issues facing middle England – notably the cost of electricity, petrol and housing. A combination of values conservatism with an economic fairness agenda could still devastate Labour. Early Cameronism was a million miles away from this balanced conservatism but it's pretty close to being in the right place today.
- The rebalancing of the top Tory team: Early in Cameron's premiership – especially after Liam Fox's departure – there was an imbalance to Cameron's Cabinet team. The promotions of Owen Paterson, Chris Grayling and also Theresa Villiers have created a little more of a sense that all of the party has Cameron's ear. The increased regularity of political cabinet is also very welcome.
- The EU referendum pledge: The promise of an In/Out vote – with legislation this
parliament – was recommended by ConHome as an essential way of stopping
the EU debate killing party unity. Cameron didn't get there quickly – nor in a
straight line but, eventually, he adopted all three planks of the EU
policy we recommended.
- The appointment of Lynton Crosby: We recommended that – unlike at the last general election when the campaign had little structure – the party appointed a clear head of the general election campaign… and we recommended that that person should be Lynton Crosby. There were critics of the appointment (eg Peter Oborne) but Lynton Crosby has helped lift the confidence of Tory MPs, cleared the barnacles off the boat in order to focus only on key messages and sharpened the nature of the attack on Labour. The so-called Wizard of Oz shouldn't be credited with all of the improvement in the Tory operation but he has certainly been an important and positive influence (and Labour attacks on his business interests are a back-handed acknowledgment that they understand his potency).
- The appointment of John Hayes to improve parliamentary liaison: John is one of parliament's fixers with good relations across the parliamentary party (and across the aisle). His appointment to Number 10 as parliamentary adviser to the PM was one sign of David Cameron's much greater outreach to Tory MPs. David Cameron made a huge effort at the time of Margaret Thatcher's death to build better relations with his parliamentary party and those efforts have continued since – coordinated by John Hayes and other Downing Street staffers.
- The greater use of more Tory MPs: We recommended that Cameron set up a brains trust to help him develop policy and, not so long ago, he did just that with the policy unit overseen by Jo Johnson (I'm not sure we would have picked another Old Etonian). We recommended other ways of ensuring more Tory MPs were constructively employed and given hope that they were on the way up.
- The replacement of Sayeeda Warsi with a campaigning party chairman: Done.
- The targeting of Lib Dem MPs: It remains to be seen if Tory HQ will fight Lib Dem MPs with sufficient vigour but one of Grant Shapps' first decisions as Party Chairman was to ensure that half of the party's target seats at the next election will be Lib/Con marginals.
- The forthcoming introduction of a recognition of marriage in the tax system: The ConHome team was divided on the wisdom of the gay marriage policy but we were at a loss to understand why Cameron's promise to recognise marriage in the tax system was not an equal priority for the PM. Socially conservative Tory MPs have now been promised that it will be announced in the autumn statement.
- The creation of a Department of External Relations: Not to be underestimated if it is done properly. At a time when people don't trust politicians but do trust many third party organisations and peer groups, their cultivation is the new political gold.
I hope and expect other ConHome recommendations – including the early scheduling of the election debates (if they happen at all) and The Big Butterfly Moment – to be taken on board. I'm less optimistic about some of the other recommendations that have appeared on this site (including the cancellation of HS2). In large measure the Tory machine and offering is where it should have been three or four years ago. If Cameron had got there earlier with a blue collar/ Halfonesque conservatism the emergence of UKIP might never have happened. But it has and a split on the Right was easier to prevent than it will be to cure.