January 9, 2008
All the lofty rhetoric about Gordon Brown restoring traditional civil service values has finally been dissipated with the appointment of Stephen Carter as chief political organiser in Downing Street.
Quick fixes aimed at driving the media agenda became the hallmark of Tony Blair’s decade in Downing Street and the cumulative damage which they inflicted on both the authority of Parliament and the standing of the civil service caused widespread unease within the Labour Party.
Early last summer, as he outlined a vision for his Premiership, Brown and his aides did much to promote the idea that the new administration would rein in unaccountable political advisers and put the levers of power back in the hands of civil servants.
Indeed, the new Prime Minister kept his word: his chief of staff Tom Scholar and Michael Ellam, his director of communications, are both civil servants and together with the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, who was previously Brown’s permanent secretary at the Treasury, it seemed, at least to begin with, that the Whitehall mandarins were beginning to regain some of the confidence and authority which they had lost under Blair.
By appointing Carter to the new post of chief of strategy and principal adviser to the Prime Minister, Brown has given the clearest possible signal that he is finding it impossible to survive politically without the kind of control freakery which was exercised by the likes of Alastair Campbell.
Although Carter will be unable to instruct civil servants -- a power which was exercised by Campbell and Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell -- his brief will be as all embracing as that of his two predecessors. Carter will be in charge of political strategy, communications and research and will also be in control of the No. 10 policy unit.
Carter brings with him his experience both as chief executive of Brunswick, the city public relations consultancy, and formerly that of chief executive of the broadcasting regulator Ofcom.
While Carter’s immediate task will be akin to that of chief progress chaser, making sure that the government’s initiatives are both co-ordinated and delivered, his lead role as principal political adviser will put him in a commanding position when it comes to controlling the rest of the Labour-appointed advisers and spin doctors whose uncontrolled spin over the election-that-never-was caused Brown so much damage last autumn.
Brown’s belief that he could somehow roll back the spinning of the Blair years and restore civil service authority was always wishful thinking.
When looking back on the Blair decade the former cabinet secretary, Sir Robin (now Lord) Butler said that what stood out so clearly was the way the media were driving modern politics.
Because politicians had convinced themselves the only way to deal with their ongoing struggle with the media was to try to control the news agenda, the Blair years had proved that political advisers were better at creating headlines than civil servants.
Therefore Butler had concluded that no future government could survive without the assistance of the Alastair Campbells of tomorrow. When he made that prediction in December 2007, there was already speculation that Brown was desperate to find a fixer who could shake up Downing Street after the disaster of Northern Rock, dithering over a non-election and the loss of personal data discs.
While Brown’s aides are insisting that Carter will not be another Campbell and will instead be a behind-the-scenes strategist and adviser, his work will be highly-political and will draw on the slick world of financial public relations.
Brown seems to have come to the conclusion that there is no alternative: unless the No. 10 machine can impose some order and control on the government’s affairs, continual Labour re-launches will be as ineffective as they were under John Major.