This site must shamelessly celebrate good news for its contributors. And the promotion of Neil O’Brien is good news all round.
Our columnist is to head up a new Conservative Party Policy Board, as part of the shake-up that follows Dominic Cummings’ departure from Downing Street, though the appointment would have been made in any event.
We stress that it will be a Party board to distinguish it both from David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Board and Boris Johnson’s own Downing Street Policy Unit. Keep up at the back there, will you?
The Prime Minister’s Policy Unit is headed by Munira Mirza, profiled recently on this site by Andrew Gimson, long-time Johnson aide, cultural conservative, and author of a well-argued piece for us defending Johnson’s renowned Daily Telegraph article about the burka.
The Unit is traditionally staffed by a mix of SpAds and civil servants, and is a long-time feature of Number Ten. The best head of it under a Conservative Government to date has been John Redwood, who served under Margaret Thatcher.
By contrast, Cameron’s Board came and went. It was, according to who you listen to, either a productive attempt to involve Tory MPs more in policy-making, or else a hamster wheel to keep them busy and prevent them from making trouble elsewhere.
Jo Johnson chaired both it and Cameron’s Policy Unit, acting as a kind of door through which policy ideas passed from the first to the second. At any rate, that Board is now a dead parrot, or rather hamster wheel, and this one won’t replace it, we’re told.
Rather, the new Policy Board will be a Party Board: O’Brien has also now become a Party Vice-Chairman, as is sometimes the way in these affairs.
It may have committees involving Conservative MPs, but the details are apparently “in gestation”. All in all, the whole business has the smack about it of a rushed attempt by Number Ten to placate an unhappy Parliamentary Party before the details have been worked out.
How, too, will it fit with Mirza’s unit? But if anyone can make sense of it all, O’Brien is the man. As a working politician, he understands politicians. As a policy wonk, he understands wonks. And as a former SpAd, he understands what might work politically and what won’t.
O’Brien is a Huddersfield man, gloriously described by Yorkshire News as “a previously obscure MP whom even political obsessives would have struggled to identify”.
His form is MP for Harborough out of Treasury SpAd out of Policy Exchange out of Business for Sterling. His best-known production while at Policy Exchange was Northern Lights – a paper about the Tory challenge outside its south-east comfort zone.
It holds the key to his appointment, which is clearly meant to signal to Conservative MPs that Johnson is not about to give up on the Red Wall…
…Though O’Brien has also been a thorough nuisance to the Government recently, exploding its proposed housing policy by means of his ConHome column, which he used ruthlessly to project the consequences for shire seats of the proposed housing algorithm.
Tory backbenchers have risen in revolt, led by Theresa May, and the powers-that-be clearly decided that the Harborough MP must be shut up, and quickly.
It’s a bit of mystery why our columnist has not been promoted previously, since both the form and his talents suggest a Minister in the making.
So where does he fit politically? O’Brien is also involved with Onward, and a small group of politicos which has met occasionally to pursue the quest for a Holy Grail which Rachel Wolf believes doesn’t exist.
Namely, to reconcile Red Wall conservatism to Notting Hill conservatism. Other knights at this Round Table have included Nick Timothy and Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s main adviser at the Treasury under the Coalition.
A study of his columns finds, inter alia, that O’Brien thinks that the University sector has grown too big, that vocational education is under-prized, and that the Tories can’t back off culture wars – interesting one, that.
He has also been instrumental in the formation of yet another of these pullulating research groups – the China Research Group, which takes a hawkish position on the eastern power. He is also a defender of lockdowns.
O’Brien must now steer his way through the reefs and rocks of Downing Street, the Parliamentary Party and, in particular, the 1922 Committee, which had its own policy group structure in place for the last election.
He is set to be the recipient of a hundred policy bouquets and a thousand policy thoughts from his colleagues. We wish him well in this endeavour.
As we say, no-one is better positioned to know which flowers to plump and primp in a vase, and which to crush to pieces in his fist – while smiling sweetly at the giver, and assuring him that they smell delightful.