Inside politics: Dowden’s candour shows Conservative spin doctors need a large injection of competence
THE name Oliver Dowden, David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff, may not be one that many people outside the Westminster bubble are familiar with.
Perhaps more unfortunately, most people inside the Westminster bubble weren’t familiar with him either until yesterday when Downing Street may have wished he had remained an obscure figure.
But Mr Dowden, in an interview with a United States public broadcaster, has lifted the lid on the strategic thinking, or rather lack of it, that goes on within Downing Street.
In it Mr Dowden admits he listens to Radio 4 in the morning to find out what is going on.
Olive, as he is known to friends, said he was “surprised” by the “day-to-day news agenda” and found himself doing “crisis management” most days.
This could be yet another tale of a special adviser or even minister who finds him or herself outside the inner circle, but unfortunately Mr Dowden’s description of life at the heart of the Downing Street machine rather seems to sum up an operation that Labour leader Ed Miliband described as “clueless” over the weekend.
Whether it is a Budget so full of U-turns that it became a consultation exercise or the inability to deal with Andrew Mitchell and “plebgate”, the BAE merger or the West Coast mainline fiasco, there seems to be a sense that the government is drifting without any strategic direction or long-term communications strategy.
For those who wondered why the Prime Minister so desperately tried to keep the former News of the World editor Andrew Coulson as his chief spin doctor, when the phone hacking inquiry engulfed them, the answer can be found in what has happened since.
Following Mr Coulson’s departure there seems to have been a lack of ability to see the consequences of actions, highlighted by the pastie and caravan taxes. There appears to be nobody in the operation who can see the possible headlines or understand that certain policy decisions will anger large sections of voters.
The Budget briefing in March was typical for those of us who saw the surprise of special advisers as it dawned on them that the granny tax was about to be an extremely damaging story. Mr Coulson may have seen it coming, nobody else in the operation did.
It is no coincidence that the out-of-touch posh boy jibes have taken hold since the working class Essex man was forced out. One of the reasons Labour pursued phone hacking so vigorously was because they knew that Cameron needed Coulson.
In terms of long-term thinking, Mr Cameron has also lost his strategist, Steve Hilton, who became frustrated and left for a new career in the US.
While a former BBC man, Craig Oliver, has been brought in as Mr Coulson’s replacement, the operation gives the impression of being run by people who have only been party employees or special advisers since graduating.
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