Inside Cameron's Number 10: Anthony Seldon on the team at the centre of governmrent

Throughout his premiership, David Cameron’s inner circle has remained remarkably consistent. Historian and author Anthony Seldon runs through the men and women who make 10 Downing Street tick

By Anthony Seldon

10 Jul 2015

Downing Street is much like any other business. It has an official organisation chart that often bears little relation to the reality of who holds power. For many years thus, since I wrote The Powers behind the Prime Minister with Dennis Kavanagh in 1999, I have preferred a model which uses ‘circles of influence’ to describe the reality of power around the prime minister.

Positions on these circles change over time. Both Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair thus had four or five different arrangements of power, as both personnel and circumstances changed. Different figures have influence in some areas, but not in others. This is particularly true of foreign affairs, and notably Europe, though even here, the advice is not restricted to specialists, as every aspect of Europe has a domestic implication.

David Cameron is unusual as prime minister in his very strong preference for continuity of personnel. Over his ten years as Conservative leader, the last five of which he has been prime minister, he has had only three different circles.

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The first lasted from shortly after he became leader of the opposition in 2005 until 2011. In the inner circle was Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff, Kate Fall, his gatekeeper, and George Osborne, shadow chancellor then chancellor, the three rocks who have underpinned his leadership throughout. In the first period, in the inner circle also was Andy Coulson, director of communications, Steve Hilton, the brilliant and volatile strategist and policy-deviser, and William Hague, the former party leader (1997-2001) and shadow foreign secretary/foreign secretary.

This was a strong team for the requirements of the time, and proved much more effective than those around his three immediate predecessors: William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith (2001-03) and Michael Howard (2003-05).

The team, however, unravelled within a year or two of Cameron arriving in Downing Street. Andy Coulson stood down, mired by the allegations surrounding the phone hacking saga. Steve Hilton encountered difficulties working with the Whitehall machine, and while his “Big Society” programme floundered, many of his initiatives found their way into policy. Hague became intensely involved at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and was unable to play the day to day role in decision making that George Osborne did.

Cameron’s first team was stronger at propelling him into Downing Street than it was in providing him with the support he needed to drive the country under the difficult circumstances of the coalition with the Lib Dems. It was not effective at managing the Conservative party, which contained many MPs angry at Cameron for failing to win an outright election victory and for going into government with the Lib Dems, who they despised.

He found it hard to produce a coherent programme of policies, which commanded the support of his parliamentary party. A series of u-turns, as over the sale of forests, created an impression of incompetence, after the initial honeymoon period wore off. Insufficient oversight was given to Andrew Lansley’s health reforms, which ran into so much opposition that they had to be watered down. The central drive of the government was supplied by Osborne at the Treasury with the “Plan A”, a stiff regime of fiscal probity and reform. Abroad, Cameron lacked a coherent policy on Europe, while his enthusiasm for interventions after the Arab Spring, as in Libya, failed to evolve into a coherent policy in the face of a complex of international forces.

Number 10 was in a state of some flux from mid-2011 until late 2012, and was being battered from all sides. Although Cameron’s personal future was never in doubt, his credibility was. The nadir came in the month following Osborne’s so called “omnishambles” Budget of March 2012.

By early 2013, Number 10 was settling down into a new configuration of influence, Osborne, Llewellyn and Fall remained in the inner circle. Into that select group came two others. Craig Oliver had been appointed director of communications in early 2011 to succeed Coulson, but it took 18 months for him to assert his credentials and earn his right of place in the inner ring.

No one was to fill Hilton’s place entirely, but a different kind of strategic clarity came with the arrival of Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby, who worked out of CCHQ and never had a desk at Number 10, but he was talking constantly to Cameron and Osborne. He was brought in by Osborne to provide a coherence to the election strategy that they lacked in 2010, and he swiftly stamped his mark in the whole operation, providing it with a discipline that they never had dating all the way back to 2005. He insisted that everyone stayed on message, and that message was very clearly the “long term economic plan”, which he said the Conservatives had and which Ed Miliband’s Labour, he said, did not. At last, Cameron had a coherent and complete team.

The rhythm of the day remained unchanged throughout his time in power. The team met together at 8:30 in the morning and finished at 4pm in the afternoon in the prime minister’s office at the end of the Cabinet room. If Osborne was not there, Cameron would always want to know “what does George think?”

This new arrangement provided grip in Number 10, which it had rarely had in the past. Managing Number 10 well, as Major, Blair and Brown found, is deeply challenging, rocked as it is by constant crises, which militate against consistency and are liable to put Number 10 constantly on the back foot.
In the middle tier, in the two years running up to the general election, was a stable team. In his capacity as chief executive Рi.e. head of the government machine ΠCameron had powerful officials: Chris Martin, director general of Number 10 and Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet secretary and the most influential official in Britain in the last 20 years.

In foreign policy advice he relied heavily on John Casson, his foreign affairs private secretary until 2014, and then Nigel Casey. On defence and security, the experienced Kim Darroch, the national security adviser, was his key official. On Europe, two officials predominate: Tom Scholar in the Cabinet Office and Ivan Rogers, the permanent representative at the EU, who is based in Brussels. Indicatively, both men came from the Treasury, not the FCO.

On relations with the party, his two key advisors were Andrew Feldman, an old friend who was party chairman, and Oliver Dowden, the deputy chief of staff. On communications and organisation, the key figure was Liz Sugg, who, as head of operations, planned all Cameron's tours in the UK and abroad. Clare Foges wrote the speeches. A constant attender at the 8:30 and 4pm meetings was the brilliant and young chief of staff, Rupert Harrison. Helping bring discipline to Number 10 and the government was Ameet Gill, who headed the grid.

Cameron phase three is much like the second period. Rupert Harrison has departed and his place has been taken by Thea Rogers, responsible for smartening up Osborne’s image since 2013. Dowden has departed and Gill moves up into a more prominent place, as does Sugg. Effectively, though it is still the same team. It is unlikely to change all the way until Cameron walks out of Downing Street for the last time.


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