Inside Whitehall: What Downing Street doesn't want you to know

Last month Tory strategists issued an edict to Government departments banning them from highlighting events that do not chime with the party's key themes

Share

Take three seemingly unconnected events.

One: a ground-breaking speech by Britain’s first Muslim Cabinet minister warning that Islamic sectarianism is a “deep and dangerous” problem that is being used to justify acts of religious extremism. Two: the publication of a Department of Work and Pensions-commissioned report setting out a plan to help people with mental health problems stay in employment. Three: proposals to make it illegal for cosmetic surgery companies to offer treatments without their staff undergoing training.

What do they have in common? Well, Downing Street doesn’t really want you to know about them. Not because they are bad news – in fact quite the opposite – but because they no longer fit into the Conservative Party’s strategy to win the next election.

Last month senior Tory strategists in Number 10 issued an edict to Government departments effectively banning them from highlighting speeches, initiatives and events that are not central to the party’s key election themes of crime, the economy, immigration and welfare.

A quick comparison between the number of Government press releases made in January 2013 and those issued last month makes the point. The Department of Transport: 17 compared to eight; the Department of Education: 18 compared to 10; the Department of Health: 25 compared to three.

It is causing some irritation in Whitehall – and some anger among affected Conservative ministers. The criticism is that Downing Street is “burying” important work being done by the Government which may actually be counter-productive in the longer term.

Take, for example, flooding. Political sources suggest that the Government was perceived to be slow off the mark in dealing with the issue because it failed to flag it up early enough. Defra and the Environment Agency were well aware of the potential problems they were facing after weeks of prolonged rainfall – but because it did not fit with the Number 10’s agenda of talking about the economy, too little effort was made to warn the public of the risks or what the Government was doing about it.

It is telling that only one press release about flooding was released by Defra in the whole of January. It was only when the problem became a crisis that the machine sprang into action – but by then it was too little too late.

Others complain that an unrelenting focus on certain subject areas is inadvertently distorting priorities in government. There is a sense of drift in parts of Whitehall that now feels unappreciated by a centre whose message appears to be – be seen and not heard.

Some of this is simply irritation by junior ministers that they are being muzzled from talking about their pet projects. But there is a wider point. Governments should have some sort of obligation to promote and talk about issues beyond the narrow focus of party political gain. Just because an issue isn’t going to win you votes doesn’t mean it isn’t important. That applies particularly to speeches like Baroness Warsi’s on religious intolerance.

But there is one amusing postscript to this new Downing Street diktat: it is bringing some Liberal Democrat ministers closer to their Tory counterparts. Nick Clegg has made it very clear that his ministers will not be bound by the strictures that now affect their Coalition partners.

So in order to get their schemes and plans noticed some Conservative ministers are turning to their Liberal Democrat colleagues for help. “Who says we’re not working well together?” remarked one Lib Dem dryly.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Senior Sales Broker - OTE £100,000

£20000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportuni...

Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Duty Manager is required to join one of the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Leader

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Team Leader is required to join one of the l...

Day In a Page

Read Next
9.4 million people watched the first of the three-way debates at the last election. The audience for the one on Thursday is likely to be far lower.  

David Cameron needs to learn some new tricks – and fast

Steve Richards
The 2010-formed Coalition was led by a partly reformed Conservative Party, checked and balanced by Nick Clegg  

How did the Coalition ever manage to work together so harmoniously?

Isabel Hardman
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor