Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former policy chief, has spoken about his “horror” at the powerlessness of Downing Street to control government decisions. According to yesterday’s Sunday Times, Hilton was addressing students at Stanford University in California, and there was one passage in the report that told me everything about the problems the Government is currently facing.
Hilton produced a foot-high bundle of paper for his audience, representing four days’ worth of documents circulated to Cabinet committees. He then said: “It just shows you the scale of what you’re up against in trying to control these things. The idea that a couple of political advisers read through all this and spot things that are bad, things that are contradictory, is just inconceivable.”
And he’s right, which is precisely why a system has been in place since 1997 which means they don’t have to. The “grid system” initiated by New Labour is commonly considered to be a news management tool, with a series of announcements plotted to dominate each day’s coverage.
But its far more important role was doing precisely what Hilton says is impossible: giving political advisers an easily-digestable paper (no more than 20 to 30 pages long) containing the key elements of every government announcement or external news item over the next fortnight.
The “grid” was simply an aide-memoire version of this document, which would be circulated by No 10’s Strategic Communications and form the basis of a Friday morning meeting to go through line-by-line. At different times under the Labour government, these meetings were chaired by Alastair Campbell, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Heywood (as chief of staff to Gordon Brown). They were attended by every member of the No 10 Policy Unit, all key Communications staff, and all the key civil servants in the PM’s private office.
Behind the Cabinet meetings, these were the most important meetings of the week in Downing Street. Upcoming announcements would be challenged, more information sought, and it was (to quote Hilton) “inconceivable” that something would be announced without No 10 knowing about it, let alone something that they didn’t agree with.
So if what Hilton told his students is true, what on earth has happened to the No 10 grid system? We’re forever being told that Cameron, Osborne and their teams are devotees of Tony Blair’s style of government, but if they have ditched or downgraded the key mechanism by which his Downing Street managed the business of government, it is a shocking blindspot in their devotion, and one that needs correcting. Sharpish.
Damian McBride is a former special adviser to Gordon Brown. He is the head of communications for Cafod