David Cameron is really trying to reach out to his party at the moment. The announcements of a policy board of MPs and a policy chief who is also an MP were intended to show that it’s not just the inner circle that calls the shots. Jo Johnson appears to have received a bigger promotion than initially announced: today’s Sun reports he’s not just leading on policy, he’s also taking over from Oliver Letwin in writing the manifesto.
But appointing Chris Lockwood to the policy unit has added to the impression that the PM really trusts his friends and those who hail from the same social circle. He did, after all, name this journalist as one of his friends in evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. It is an unfair impression: a proper look at the policy board reveals MPs from a range of backgrounds. But Sarah Wollaston, who seems particularly unhappy with the way the appointments have been made, does have a point about Number 10’s method. She complained last night that there should be interviews, tweeting:
‘More free policy advice… interviews. Would you want a surgeon who’d been appointed by patronage?’
Those on the policy board are an impressive bunch and hail from a range of different sorts of constituencies. But inevitably when you pick one group of MPs, another is left out. There are other backbenchers who remain underused by the party, who have stayed loyal and who don’t mind doing the dirty work. As much as appointing Jesse Norman and George Eustice is a gesture to those who have strayed into the rebel lobbies, it must also leave those who have stayed loyal scratching their heads and wondering what on earth they have to do to catch the PM’s attention. The policy board members were approached, not asked to apply, and so the other underused MPs never got the chance to make their case.
It’s not that the policy board isn’t a good thing: it is, and it has some very interesting members indeed. But those members will need to work hard to make sure that every MP who wants to accost them in the tearoom about a policy that worries them always feels they have access.
And when it comes to the tearoom, as the PM looks for ways to extend his love-in with backbenchers, he could do worse than to take a leaf out of Ed Miliband’s book. A number of Tory MPs speak very approvingly of the Labour leader’s ability to sit down for a chinwag with Conservative – yes, Conservative – backbenchers as he wanders between the tables. But they note that the PM lacks that easy warmth. He has bought himself time with his hard work over the past few weeks, but Cameron must sustain that level of effort if he is to keep things rosy in the party.