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Cameron’s speech timetabling shambles underlines his DNA problem – all tactics no strategy

Posted on 15 January 2013 | 5:01pm

Here is a piece I have done for The Guardian today.

I sometimes wish we had patented “The Grid”, the scheduling tool New Labour developed in opposition and subsequently used in government to seek to bring order and strategy to a mass of often seemingly unrelated activities. These days, most major organisations and businesses have some kind of grid system to help co-ordination, discipline and strategy. It seems the UK government led by David Cameron may no longer be one of them, however, or if it is, then just as it is not doing a very good job of meeting its main strategic goal – reducing the deficit – so it is also not doing a very good job of organising itself.

Cameron’s former right-hand man, Steve Hilton, appears to blame the civil service. His criticisms, of an organisation determined to do its own thing and ignore the needs and demands of ministers, strike me as wide of the mark. My experience is that if the civil service is given a clear lead, based on clear principles and thought-through planning, it is not that bad at delivering.

What it has not had, with or without Hilton in Number 10 around, is that clear lead since Cameron became prime minister. Instead it has picked up on the confusing sense of ever-changing priorities, and learned to follow the lead of a prime minister who is forever putting tactics ahead of strategy.

The grid must always speak to a clear strategy, in our case modernisation, in Cameron’s case … ? Its priorities must be clear. Once that is so, deciding how much space within overall government planning to give to issue A or issue B becomes relatively straightforward. That is what the grid was about. The main events, which would be slotted in at the top of the day’s planning schedules, had to speak to one of our main strategic goals. If they didn’t, why were we doing it? As the system bedded in, departments stopped having to ask obvious questions. They knew the answers because they understood the strategy.

It took time to get embedded in the system, and the civil service was an important part of that. Soon after the May 1997 election, I asked the cabinet secretary, Sir Robin Butler, if I was entitled to make significant changes to the government’s media operations. “Yes, they are expecting it,” he said. When we later established a strategic communications unit, and appointed a civil servant to run the grid operation full time, with someone in every department liaising with him, it was a cultural change for many, but by operating a policy of “maximum openness for maximum trust” we managed to secure buy-in from most departments most of the time for what we were trying to do.

The grid itself was a single page per week document that set out everything the government was doing, and anything else likely to require government response or interest. But just as important were the notes that went with it, where obvious questions being asked within government were hopefully answered.

The remarkable saga of Cameron’s European speech reveals the extent to which this system would appear not to be happening. Never mind outside No 10, nobody inside No 10 seems to have a clue about the answers to some very basic questions.

When is he making the speech? Where? Why? What is its strategic purpose? How does it fit with broader strategic goals? What are the main arguments he is putting forward? Who will support the main arguments and who will oppose them? What third parties are being lined up to echo his views? What are the potential diplomatic ramifications?

In other words, have any of the basics been done here? I can barely recall a speech that has had so much coverage not about what he will say, but where and when. The other thing about a grid is that important potential clash dates should be on there. So for No 10 to schedule a big speech on Europe without realising it was the same day as a major Franco-German anniversary suggests they are not covering basic research very well either.

A speech as important as this one will require concerted communication from other ministers, not least the foreign secretary, William Hague. I assume his trip to Australia has been planned for some time, and his presence there while Cameron speaks to an audience even now being rustled up by harassed UK diplomats in the Netherlands underlines the make-it-up-as-he-goes-along approach by the prime minister to a subject of huge national interest.

But the point in all this goes back to the fundamental weakness in Cameron’s DNA, absence of clear strategy. He has been Tory leader for more than seven years, prime minister for more than two. Yet his views on Europe are not well understood either by his party or the public. His planned speech, now being rushed out this Friday according to the latest date given, (doubtless subject to change) is a response to others, notably Ukip, not a rolling-out of a plan devised and developed by him.

To have had such attention given already to the questions of when and where, rather than what, underlines a prime minister having his agenda set for him by others, which is always a dangerous position for a politician to be in. The grid was designed to help politicians set the agenda themselves. This Europe speech has had enough planned dates to fill a whole grid on its own. What is clear from every word coming out of No 10 is that he is not yet sure what he intends to say, or why.

  • Anonymous

    Have noticed our Dave is all over the place, leaving a trail of confused civil servants in his hot air behind him, scratching their heads.

    Which way is the wind blowing for you today, Dave?

  • lucy

    I have come to the conclusion that Cameron isn’t a real person. He is in fact a robot controlled by Boris Johnson’s pet cat. There can be no other reason for the complete chaos surrounding Cameron and his “policies”.

  • Anonymous

    Clear message ‘Eat the cake, enjoy the high talks, keep everyone and all busy and engaged, with intentions of repairing the economy, and no results or goals achieved’

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post.

    Best thing Dave Cee can do for his country is to give in, and call a GE.

    The lad is lost in the woods, no matter what he says.

  • http://twitter.com/northernheckler nilsinela boray

    I’m pretty sure that you’re right. However I did feel that pretty similar conditions were in evidence the other week when Andy Burnham had himself roasted over appearing to announce that the Labour Party wanted to ban sugar puffs. Of course he actually did nothing of the sort – but the consultation paper, and people briefed on it, which would have made this clear were no where in sight – hence his being taken apart by the press. The Tories’ disarray is very worrying – but I’m not convinced my own party is ‘on grid’ either

  • dhev

    Excellent post. Do we really have to suffer two more years of this chaos? (Come on Ed, stop saying “let me explain” to interviewers, and start a proper fightback). I wish I had the journalistic skills to get points across so clearly. Being a musician, I have made an audio contribution instead, about corporate greed. Hope you enjoy it;
    https://soundcloud.com/dhev/wealth-for-all

  • Anonymous

    Most unkind. One has to remember that he has been burdened with a privileged education, has never had to work in the sense we know it, is able to ponce about like a capo di capi because his party is full of feeble brains, and all that’s a terrible handicap for a chap. I once attended an evening affair at which he talked and took questions. One could see the personal arrogance of the man, his enormous self esteem, in the way he treated his guests. Let us hope he isn’t thinking too deeply about Europe….

  • http://twitter.com/fourmenterian Ricky Myles

    The not-so-long-awaited speech could be described as the Tories European bombshell. Before Cameron has even made the speech he has managed to cause uncertainty amongst businesses, whether operating in the UK or considering investment there. The uncertainty caused by the whimsical nature of this attempt to corral votes from UKIP is likely to colour debate for the rest of this parliament.

    Cameron has also presented a gift to the SNP. He expects Europe to negotiate over repatriation of powers in anticipation of a settlement being put to the UK electorate in a referendum, yet any time the SNP raise the possibility of the UK government discussing arrangements for an independent Scotland in the event of a Scottish ‘yes’ vote they get rebuffed.

    If the EU tells Cameron to away and have his referendum, then come back and discuss, the PM hasn’t a leg to stand on.

    And suppose we arrive at an in/out referendum, what format would it be – a unified or regional or national (constituent part of UK) format. Suppose the Tories insisted on a unified count and the Scottish government (or Welsh Assembly or Stormont) want local counts – if the UK government insisted on a unitary count there’d be uproar particularly if the mood in Scotland, where there is generally far less anti-EU rhetoric, was to remain within the EU.

  • http://twitter.com/Janiete Janet Edwards

    Have we ever had a more incompetent and shambolic government? Just as it might be dawning on investors that talk in 2010 of impending UK bankruptcy was merely a stupid bit of political scaremongering, they do it again. Led by the man in charge of steering our economy back to health, no less, they have now squashed any tentative investor confidence with dishonest and politically driven talk of EU exit.

    To settle any business worries, a confident, clear-headed PM would have slapped Osborne down after his faux pas in Germany. But Cameron isn’t confident or clear thinking, in fact, he gives the impression of being totally directionless. His performance at PMQs today was woeful. Does he support equal pay for women? Does he want criminals fleeing justice to be sent home to face trial? Does he want workers to be forced to work more than 48 hours per week? He couldn’t answer. He daren’t! If he supports his crazy backbench he has to admit he never was the moderniser he pretends to be. If he opposes them they’ll hang him out to dry.

    So we have a non-leading leader. Roll-on 2015.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps Burnham said that because he had just discovered All Bran, and wanted to share it with the world?

    Still full of sugar though – try porridge oats Andy, made with water, with a bit of salt only. Strangely tasty it is. Bit of cream too, if you want, but not too much.

    Yes Andy, horse food….

  • Anonymous

    Nice one – yes, our UK form of capitalism now includes personal tax “avoidance”, built in, if you’re in the know, or have someone, if you can afford it, to show you the tricks.

  • Anonymous

    Alastair, you might be interested what Nicole has to say, ref. cycling and that pied piper Armstrong, if you haven’t noticed it yet with the morning papers,

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2013/jan/16/cyclist-nicole-cooke-say-exactly-how-is

  • Anonymous

    furthermore, short clip,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wD4Flfuvcs

    Full wotsit from her on her retirement speech, twenty minutes told of reality conscript,
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2013/jan/14/nicole-cooke-retirement-statement

  • Anonymous

    You can see Alastair that that has wrankled with her for years. But she had to keep shtum, for the good of her own career.

    And Armataige, or whatever her cowing name is, needs to get a life criticising Nicole, the plainly tory fuck cameron sock puppet she seems to be, not liking Wales and always putting it down with any half a chance.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/cycling/8906596/Lizzie-Armitstead-slams-team-mate-Nicole-Cooke-over-Road-Cycling-World-Championships-near-miss.html

    Makes me sick these english tory types still running things in Wales – as Phil Bennet said, the ex-Wales rugger captain that lives down the road to me, said once, “when you play with the english, you have got to be twice as good as them to win”, or words to that effect.

  • Anonymous

    Andy Burnham my mate, Geordie before the 1956 Adelaide Olympics, eating porridge oats me lad, slinging his whatevers, athletic.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AG9GiDaDKZ8

    Oh my gawd, Melbourne it twas, I got it wrong, as you do lad.

  • Anonymous

    [F]or No 10 to schedule a big speech on Europe without realising it was the same day as a major Franco-German anniversary suggests they are not covering basic research very well either.

    I thought this was utterly hilarious – and the biggest indicator yet of the rank amateurishness of these people. Aside from the serious consequences for the country (a place its own government seems not to take very seriously any more), this aspect of the Cameron Euroshambles did make me laugh. Darkly.