Fortunately, behind the scenes a new steel is showing. The Government is raising its comms game. Notably, the key protagonists in Number 10’s internal feud – Damian McBride and Stephen Carter – have been shifted out of the critical centre. Instead, we have seen the return of old allies Nick Brown, Wilf Stevenson and Baroness Shriti Vadera.
The appointment of the well-liked Joe Irvin, replacing Fiona Gordon as the political secretary, was another marked improvement that was already bearing fruit by the time of the Labour conference. Yet it has not been a purge and Brown’s trusted aide, Sue Nye, remains the gatekeeper, along with numerous well-motivated staff at more junior posts.
The bold decision to move operations to 12 Downing Street, in order to have an open-plan working space, gives added power. Brown is obsessed with the strength of the Tory operation, its rapid and effective comms, and with Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s comms chief. Yet the PM has made calculated changes to his team and to their working practices.
It looks like ‘loyalty, focus and competence’ has become the management mantra – and those failing are out. Even with Mandelson’s appointment Brown is sending the same message. The Tories couldn’t bring back John Major and similarly expect to calm nerves.
The only brick missing is a top-notch political media operator in the Alastair Campbell mould – the post associated with the Daily Mirror’s Kevin Maguire and former Sun editor David Yelland. This is the crucial appointment and one glaringly obvious candidate would be Weber Shandwick’s UK & Ireland CEO Colin Byrne – if he were prepared to take the pay cut.
But whoever ends up in that role, the machine around them has been taken apart and rebuilt. The message is clear that Cameron’s easy ride is over.
Alex Hilton is a Labour parliamentary candidate and founder of political blogs Labourhome and Recess Monkey