Since becoming prime minister, Gordon Brown has fended off accusations of ‘kitchen cabinet’ government with remarkable ease. He has done so mainly by putting some of those who previously sat round the hearth into the real Cabinet and gathering a new galley crew.
But not all has been suaveness in the political household. In April 2008 chief aide Spencer Livermore resigned after nearly a decade as a key member of the Brown team, following alleged spats about the reorganisation of the leader’s political machinery in the New Year. The usual accusations and denials followed.
Mr Brown issued a glowing tribute to Mr Livermore, spicing it with a remark that effortlessly illustrates the true power that public relations specialists have now gained in Downing Street. “I know that [Spencer] will continue to play a major role with his new company in helping Labour to a fourth terms of government.”
The company concerned is advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi and Fallon, successors to the team that scored Margaret Thatcher’s greatest PR successes with “Labour isn’t working” (1979) and “Labour’s tax bombshell” (1987). Not only are the two leading parties swapping policies back and forth, they are also aping and upping each other’s corporate manoeuvres.
Stephen Carter, Mr Brown’s new chief of strategy and principal adviser, has run financial PR giants Brunswick (which once employed the PM’s wife), as well as Ofcom, NTL and J Walter Thompson. David Muir, director of political strategy and friend of Tory counterpart Steve Hilton, cut a swathe at advertising specialists WPP. Damian McBride, communications adviser, is a ‘spin’ specialist with a good working knowledge of Whitehall. Jeremy Haywood, permanent secretary at No 10, has handled pressures in the city as well as the civil service.
The pattern is that those who are newest have less political experience and more in media and PR. In part this may be to compensate for the perception that while Tony Blair, accompanied by Alastair Campbell, was seen as highly PR savvy, Brown is less so. Or at least he is up against a new breed of opponent, in David Cameron and Nick Clegg, who both have strong media-handling components to their backgrounds.
Indeed, these days it is getting harder to imagine a major political figure who is not cut of this cloth. Labour’s disastrous 1983 election campaign was not just down to a radical manifesto dubbed ‘the longest suicide note in history’, but to a leader, the admirably intellectual and morally robust Michael Foot, whose compelling set piece oratory disguised a man, and a party, fatally out of touch with the way modern communications works.
The danger now, many believe, is that things have swung too far in the opposite direction, so that any idea, policy or message with “too many wrinkles in it” (let alone a messenger with the same, or a beard) is written out of the agenda before anyone has even added tick boxes.
Here’s another mould ripe for breaking, if anyone really wants to be bold.
Meanwhile, Gordon Brown has continued to add to his coterie of personal advisers, and his much vaunted "government of the talents" has reached out well beyond traditional Labour ranks - to the delight of some and the suspicion or hostility of others.
On issues related to religion and ethics, the PM has been known to listen especially to Rabbi Jonathan Sachs (who blends traditionalism with an acute eye on social issues) and progressive US evangelical leader Jim Wallis, a figure familair to many readers of Ekklesia news and bulletins, and a bipartisan but liberal-leaning critic of the 'Christian right'.
"Wallis challenges us to create a society that both addresses injustice and stresses personal responsibility, and his call for a global covenant through which rich countries meet their obligations to the poor will have a resonance across the world," Brown said when the British edition of the bestselling God's Politics appeared in February 2006.
Much water has passed under the bridge since then. Brown has moved to Downing Street, making overtures towards George Bush (of whom Wallis has been a leading critic) and disappointing some of his erstwhile supporters with an approach that has smacked too much of caution and rather less of the bold principle they were hoping for.
How Jim Wallis views these developments from across the Atlantic is not known. But his new book Seven Ways to Change the World continues to push mainstream political leaders to respond to social justice and environmental issues arising from a broadly based grassroots (not a narrow Christian base).
The book will be introduced and discussed at a public meeting in London on 25 May 2008. So readers will have an opportunity to ask Wallis what his verdict is on Brown so far. See: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/7067
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com, as well as contributing to Guardian Comment-is-Free, Open Democracy and other media outlets. His website is www.simonbarow.net. An abbreviated version of this article appears in the May 2008 Westminster Watch column in the revamped Third Way magazine. In the same issue he has also interviewed Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg about his background and influences.