Tag Archives: David Cameron

The Grid Guru And The Smoking Room

Me with Paul

Last night I was at Walkers, just off Whitehall, at retirement drinks for Paul Brown, who has been the guardian and guru of the government grid for the past 12 years.

I first met Paul in the smoking room at No 10, which was a dingy little room in the basement where the smokers in the building would come and go through the day. It doubled as the cleaners’ changing room. They also made their toast in there, which added to the unique aroma of ash and smoke, scorched bread and furniture polish.

There was a large table in the middle which smokers would sit around, shooting the acrid breeze before returning to their desks. At various times of day you’d see Jon Cruddas, then working in Tony Blair’s political office, drawing on a fag, thumb on cheek, brow furrowed, like he was playing a tricky poker hand. Or Anji Hunter, bustling in for a brisk, businesslike nicotine fix, aiming shrewd questions at members of the smokers’ focus group – ‘Mark, how would you describe the Third Way in one sentence?’. Er. Cigarette three quarters smoked, she’d rearrange whichever floaty scarf she was wearing, delve into her bag for her breath freshener, a quick spray, and off she went.

It was a democratic, gossipy gathering of people doing jobs at all levels. Detectives, Garden Room girls, messengers, IT, press officers, duty clerks, policy advisers.  It was in the smoking room that a chat with the head of IT, when I mentioned that I was looking for a flat, led to me buying his place in Streatham. It’s the flat I still live in, twelve years on.

A not infrequent visitor to the smoking room was the cardiganed figure of Paul Brown. He rolled his own cigarettes in the very precise, meticulous way that characterises everything he does. He was always interesting to chat to, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of, amongst other things, civil war battlefields, a sphinx-like smile and an ability to calmly take everything in his stride. When you’re dealing with the competing and sometimes antithetical policy and media demands of ministers and their departments, that’s a required quality.

Paul is rightly highly regarded as the civil servant par excellence, totally professional, hard-working and completely without the vanity that sometimes infects people who are doing important jobs. Whatever you think about the management of communications, through his management of the grid of events and announcements, Paul has done an enormous amount to make government communications more strategic and effective, serving three prime ministers – Blair, Brown and Cameron.

So I think it was a measure of the respect and affection Paul has earned over the years that the bar at Walkers was a friendly crush of people from Downing Street and Whitehall, past and present. It was nice to catch up with some old colleagues, Labour and civil service, and chat to some of the current bunch of No 10 staffers.

Paul has been one of the back-room heroes, and I wish him well in his retirement from Downing Street, and all the things he does in the future. And it’s good to hear he has successfully given up smoking.

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Big Society: A Closet Size Queen Comes Out

Nick Clegg

Junior member of the Cameron government, Nick Clegg, appeared on LBC this morning. Presenter Nick Ferrari asked him repeatedly whether or not he likes the Big Society (BS for short). Clegg repeatedly tried to dodge and waffle his way out of an answer. First, he claimed the government had removed the right of councils to ‘spy on your bin’.

Is that really a core principle behind the Big Society? I wasn’t aware of people lying awake at night wondering if Lambeth Council’s Special Wheelie Bin Intelligence Squad was on the prowl for refuse-niks. They are rather more likely to be concerned about whether or not their bin will be emptied as regularly as in the past,which, given savage government cuts to local government now and in coming years, is a justified concern.  Or perhaps the idea is that the community will be empowered to spy on each other’s bins. Who knows?

Clegg then haltingly attempted to explain the BS ‘concept’. In my experience, when politicians haltingly attempt anything it’s fair to say they are either filled with bafflement or they are plain old reluctant. In Clegg’s case, it would be reasonable to conclude he is filled with both bafflement and reluctance. But contrast his subsequent remarks in favour, confirming he is in fact full of BS.

Ferrari then turned to Clegg’s apparent lack of community activism, asking why he isn’t running a pub or taking over the local park. Clegg responded that he would be too busy explaining student fees policy to serve any drinks. Perhaps, especially in a pub in a studenty area. More probably, Clegg would be sorting through the ashes and rubble of The Cremated Phoenix.

Here is part of the interview I’m referring to .

NF:  Are you a fan of the big society, does the big society as a proposition, has it been sold well, does it work, do you like it?

NC:   Look it is a label, a set of words which I think actually speaks for something which runs quite deep in the British psyche which is that people don’t like to constantly be told what to do, what to think, they don’t like, last week, a good example, we actually talked about it on the radio last week, and I took a lead at this, we’ve repealed the right of local authorities to spy on your bin, to break and enter into your home, to have a sort of poke around your house and I think what we are doing is we are restoring peoples sense of privacy.

NF:  So you do like the big society?

NC:   I like the whole underpinning of a big society in which people…

NF:   Golly, why won’t you say you like the big society…

NC:   No, I’ve just said of course I like the big… of course I like the concept of the big society, I’m trying to explain the concept of a big society…

NF:     You do like it?

NC:   Of course I do…

NF:    So why aren’t you doing it?

NC:    Why aren’t I doing what?

NF:    Because we are all meant, even if we have got 3 young children, as I know you have, we are all still meant to be running our village pub and becoming school governors, and taking over the local park, shouldn’t you lead by example?

NC:   Well I think if I tried to run the local pub now I’d be too stuck trying to explain the fees policy, and too busy to serve any drinks… I think the whole idea and the big society bank, which was announced over the last few days, will be a real boost to giving social enterprises and voluntary groups and others the kind of means they need to get going and take control of their own areas in the way in which we think really works.

So there we have it. It’s big. Eye-wateringly big, whether as a label, some words or a concept. And it’s got something to do with society. The Liberal Democrats, who a year ago thought it was ‘patronising nonsense’, now think it will be a ‘real boost’ that ‘really works’. Nick Clegg came out of the closet today to say so.

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Dave’s Dodo: Thoughts On The Big Society

Big Society (Societus Crassus)

Observing the various relaunches of David Cameron’s cherished ‘policy’, the Big Society, it’s unsurprising that it never quite seems to get off the ground. Like the Dodo, that ungainly, ill-fated cousin of the pigeon, it does not possess the power of flight. Everyone knows what happened to Didus Ineptus.

Societus Crassus, Mr Cameron’s very own squawking, flightless bird, seems to be as clumsy as the Dodo. Cameron said today ‘People are enthusiastic if they are given the opportunity. People like the idea.’

Do they? Cameron might claim as much in defending the idea, existing as it does as a cover for ideological cuts. But is the ‘passion’ he spoke of today shared by a waiting nation? Not according to a Sky News poll, which showed that 78% of viewers would not volunteer themselves, compared to 22% who would.

A Sunday Mirror poll yesterday showed 41 per cent of people think the Big Society is a cover for cuts – against 21 per cent who back the idea.

Cameron today claimed his Big Society ‘will not make us popular. In fact it will make us unpopular. It will make me unpopular. I recognise that is my duty. We have to do this for the good of the country.’

An interesting, if Dodo-ish, attitude. But can a policy that relies on mass volunteering work without the required mass of volunteers? Can public services and voluntary sector organisations, currently being dismembered by Cameron’s government, reassemble the hacked up pieces of themselves and carry on?

The opportunity to volunteer, to make a difference and contribute to the good causes has existed ever since human beings first had spare time. Look, for example, at the honours list each time it comes out and there are hundreds of people who have done good work in their community. But they have never before been expected to take on the burden of running significant services, day in and day out.

They do what they do because they have spare time to do it. But expect them to take on the running of, for example, a local library, and that could be a back-breaking pressure for many. Is it a fair or realistic expectation? Does the Big Society give anyone any choice in the matter? If local services will disappear unless people volunteer, is it volunteering? Is it obligation? Is it what Cameron calls ‘responsibility’ or ‘duty’? Or is it an open-ended community sentence  for people who haven’t done anything wrong?

David Cameron is placing  a romantic 18th and 19th Century notion of philanthropy, where big benefactors endowed hospitals, orphanages, almshouses or free public libraries (which were then run by paid staff), up against the reality of public services in the 21st Century (with all the expectations of high quality that are placed on them, rightly, by modern users).

It unsettles me, given Britain’s unhappy recent history with bankers, that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have now turned to large financial institutions (Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland) to help the Big Society fly. Investment will now take the form of loans to ‘social enterprises’ from the Big Society Bank. Loans, not grants. And the banks, as banks do, will inevitably want to see some return on their £200 million investment.

In addition, £100 million has been earmarked from dormant bank accounts. Ah, those dormant bank accounts. I’ve lost count of the number of times dormant bank accounts have been earmarked for various purposes in recent years. I’m surprised there’s anything left in them.

That initial pot of £300 million is around 3.5 times what Lambeth, one borough among many, is being forced to cut by government over the next three years. I presume it’s intended as seed money to encourage others to invest, which leads me to wonder whether the Big Society Bank, and the Big Society, are intended as stealth mechanisms for wholesale privatisation of public services. Where publicly run services, weakened by cuts, are being set up to fail by Cameron, Clegg and Co, private enterprise will be lined up to pick over what is left in the debris.

In Lambeth we are taking a different approach, advancing plans to become a co-operative council. We are driven, not by commercial imperative, but by co-operative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy and equality, equity and solidarity. We recognise that to protect public services we must take a democratic, mutual approach with the public we serve. So, as examples, the ambition is that youth services will be run by community-led commissioning that allows very local decision making on the best way to provide services, library services may be placed in a trust (or trusts) owned by the community, and schools encouraged to group into co-operative trusts, sharing resources to benefit children.

Lambeth Council is not abandoning services. We are working with residents to provide them. The response from the community has been encouraging. Unlike Cameron’s Big Society, our co-op council is ready to fly.

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Why not have a Brown-Cameron debate?

Peter Mandelson is ‘open’ to a broadcast debate between the party leaders at the next general election. He said yesterday: “The public needs to choose and find out what is behind these leaders, who has the most experience, the best ideas and who can really build Britain’s future.”

And why not? It’s a kite that gets flown by broadcasters every time there’s a general election in the offing. There’s an inevitability that it will happen one day. So why not just say yes and get on with it.

As a former Labour press officer I remember tedious exchanges of letters between party and media bigwigs, which generally galloped towards brinkmanship and ended up, at the brink, with a frosty agreement to disagree.

Head-to-head debate is so familiar in our culture, from the marketplace hustings of past centuries to BBC Question Time today, that it seems odd that in Britain we don’t have a debate between party leaders.

It’s an accepted part of national elections in other modern democracies – the US being the best-known example. In the US, the debates are carefully moderated and prepared for at length beforehand.

Over here the argument against has always been that we have a parliamentary democracy and voters are electing their MPs, not the prime minister. Whilst that is true, it’s also the case that voters are electing a government which will be led by a prime minister. So it makes sense to line those candidates up for national inspection, just as at the next election parliamentary candidates will be lined up at hustings in hundreds of community halls for local inspection.

After Lord Mandelson gave his view, it has been said that No 10 suggested Gordon Brown remains against the idea (just as Tony Blair was). Whatever Brown’s view is – let’s not forget there are far bigger national issues on his desk – I have no doubt he (like Blair) could wipe the floor with Messrs Cameron and Clegg on substance and policy, depending on the format.

Ah, it’s always the format that is the problem, with three parties (at least) involved, each wanting to insist on the format that suits their position best. It would be like organising a wedding ceremony where the bride and groom loathe each other and the bridesmaid (who is never the bride) insists on elbowing her way up the aisle between them and snogging the vicar.

The Conservatives have sought to capitalise, with a letter from Cameron to Brown seeking ‘clarification’. Perhaps Brown should respond asking for clarification on a list of Cameron’s policies.

The Lib Dems have said they would be happy with as many debates as possible. Well they would, wouldn’t they?

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