Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Cameron must do details

It is not easy being Prime Minister, having to keep on top of lots of pesky details across Whitehall. It can also be a major cause of inertia if you strike the wrong balance between strategy and substance: look at Gordon Brown's first year as PM as a lesson in how not to do it. But you can also go to the opposite extreme, and that has been the characteristic of David Cameron's first year in office. He paid little heed to the plans that his old boss Andrew Lansley was concocting at Health, even though they ran directly contrary to his promises to voters, and more importantly they had too many half-baked elements, such as compulsory commissioning for GPs and the effective scrapping of waiting time targets. He was far too busy to notice that Kenneth Clarke at Justice was turning the idea of the Tory party as the voice of law and order on its head, with promises to release rapists and paedophiles quickly so long as they fessed up. And his inattention has led to several other lesser difficulties too, from the scrapping of sports partnerships at the DFE to the sell off of forests at Defra. And two weeks running, this disinterest has tripped him up at Prime Minister's Questions, to the benefit of Ed Miliband.

To be fair to Cameron, a big reason why he missed a lot of this lay in his foolish acquiescence to the idea that the Blair government's biggest problem was a surfeit of special advisers, so he left his own policy unit in Downing Street woefully understaffed. That, at least, has been remedied and I suspect a count of SpAds and political policy appointments across Whitehall would rival anything from the previous decade. But there are also suggestions that the Prime Minister has the idea that he should float above the minutiae of Whitehall. And to an extent, he should. Tony Blair was very good at seeing the wood from the trees, and getting to the essence of a problem quickly. But that doesn't mean not being informed about potential pitfalls in his Government's policy: Blair used his PMQs preparation assiduously to update himself on such issues and spent plenty of time on detail when a policy was likely to be controversial.

There are signs that the some in Government are realising that details should be addressed before they create a crisis: the decision to widen the grounds for legal aid in future divorce cases to include emotional abuse (Clarke had originally intended to confine it to physical domestic violence) has avoided a certain defeat on the question in the House of Lords and an indefensible aspect of the proposals. Cameron has to show a similar attention to detail across all departments, using his policy unit as an early warning system. Otherwise, he will not just acquire a reputation for U-turns and indecisiveness, he could be seen as not on top of the job. And that's not something that people want in their prime ministers.

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