Magazine article The Spectator

Cameron Plans a Number 10 1/2 Joint HQ So He Can Keep Osborne Close at Hand

Magazine article The Spectator

Cameron Plans a Number 10 1/2 Joint HQ So He Can Keep Osborne Close at Hand

Article excerpt

The sun-capturing atrium of Portcullis House is no substitute for the Californian coast but it may at least help Steve Hilton acclimatise. He is now back from his year-long absence - though he is still dressed as if he is heading for the beach.

It is a reminder of the inverted sartorial hierarchy of the Conservatives. The lowly MPs wear suits and ties. The party's senior officers are resplendent in open necks. And anyone dressing as scruffily as Mr Hilton signals the status of three-star general.

There are precious few more reliable methods of working out who's who in the Tory high command. David Cameron works with a semi-formalised network of relationships in which people's official job titles give little idea of their true power. Major decisions can be taken at weekends and in the evenings, on an ad-hoc basis. Mr Hilton's 3 a. m. emails from California were more than capable of sending the machine into nocturnal action.

Shadow cabinet meetings are for briefing the troops, not the taking of decisions. It is a peculiar operation. But it works.

The Tory machine is powered by the personal chemistry within the team which masterminded Mr Cameron's leadership campaign - mainly Mr Hilton and George Osborne, with a few others pitching in. This team has been transposed into the Tory hierarchy with only a few modifications. Andy Coulson, the communications chief, has been admitted to the inner sanctum and Andrew Feldman, an old friend of Mr Cameron, is chief executive of the party. The operation is run in a corner of Norman Shaw South, a building on the periphery of the parliamentary complex.

To visit Norman Shaw South is to see a political machine whirring beautifully. It is like a British version of The West Wing: the key players walking in and out of their rooms and having 45-second impromptu meetings in the corridor. The Cameroon nerve centre was described to me by one shadow minister as a nest of 'the wonks, the pros and the pretties'. He means policy specialists, career politicians and Tamzin Lightwater-style female aides who strike MPs as being suspiciously presentable.

If Mr Hilton had not been so useful, he would not have dared to take a year out in California. In fact, his absence has served to reinforce his importance. During his visits to London, the whole machine (most Tory staff are in a separate office, half a mile away) would become energised. His style is to produce, say, a dozen ideas of which two will be durable. While this can be tiresome for the Conservative officials who work on the ten redundant ones, Mr Cameron considers it a worthwhile process.

The question facing them all now is how to transpose this to government. Mr Coulson and Mr Hilton will move into Number 10 - but Mr Osborne's future position in the network is less clear. Chancellors normally take up residence in the Treasury, which, of course, has an entirely separate staff and culture to Number 10. This suited Gordon Brown, who ran his own team even in opposition and would convene them in hotel rooms to keep them away from the Blairites. But Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne share staff, ideas, soundbites, weekends, everything. Their relationship is now, as it was during the leadership contest, totally collaborative.

The extent of Mr Osborne's importance to the Cameroon project was revealed this week in a report by Conservative Intelligence, a new group headed by Tim Montgomerie, founder of the influential conservativehome. …

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