Downing Street’s disaster call

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Oh Gord! The new national security strategy that Gordon Brown, the prime minister, is due to announce on Wednesday – it is all about potential disasters – has proved a bit of a disaster itself. Its genesis has been marked by delays indecisiveness at the top, a total lack of funds and some glorious Whitehall squabbling.

The strategy, which will detail all kinds of threats from terrorism to pandemics and floods, is nearly six months late. The first draft was ready last October, but parts of Whitehall were distinctly unhappy. I am told that one section on flooding was written by a senior military man who did not bother to consult the flood supremos in the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

When the shouts of protest died down, a new version was produced in February this year – after due consultation. This did not upset anyone. Indeed it was so anodyne that some officials felt positively embarrassed. Advisers in Number 10 cut its length drastically. Mr Brown started writing his speech about it, which seems to have led to a series of further changes to the strategy itself as new ideas came to him. “It’s Gordon’s temperament,” sighed one Whitehall insider. “Only he can sort things out but he concentrates on matters of the moment and drops everything else. The result is that things big and small don’t get sorted quickly.”

Right from the start there seems to have been no clear guidance from Mr Brown as to what the strategy was meant to achieve. It is expected to include plans for a new US-style national security council on which will sit the great and the good from the military and the intelligence services, but the council will report to a new cabinet committee, chaired by Mr Brown, and the old Cobra arrangements for dealing with emergencies will remain in place. All rather confusing, but the hope is that the council will make it easier to bang heads together and stop departments fighting their own corners. Hard to see how, say insiders.

“Governments have always had to choose between spending on flood defences, for example, and armaments,” says one senior figure, adding that unlike the US security council, whose job is to prioritise spending, there will be no serious extra money for contingency planning.

Yet some fear the new strategy will bring even more centralisation of power with Number 10, cutting other departments out of the action. There is even concern that top intelligence officials could become part of the prime minister’s team instead of serving the government as a whole. On this the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, the dangers of that should be all too apparent.

Tears and tantrums

Spencer Livermore, the long-time aide to Gordon Brown who is leaving Number 10 to go to Saatchi & Saatchi and Fallon, has not been ousted by Stephen Carter, the PM’s new principal adviser. I am told Mr Livermore has been wanting to go since last autumn, when he was deeply upset by tongue-lashings from Mr Brown and Ed Balls, schools minister. It seems he was so rattled that latterly he could hardly bear to be in the same room as the PM. Oh – and the reason he had to give up his room to Mr Carter and lose his place on the Number 10 organogram was that everyone there knew he was leaving.

It’s true that as soon as he arrived in January, Mr Carter sent out scouts to the City to recruit a new team for Number 10. Insiders say it is as if Mr Brown had decided to ditch the praetorian guard of loyalists he had built up over the years but did not have the intellectual or personal reach to find replacements himself. So he has handed the task to Mr Carter – making him his HR man. Yet the former Brunswick chief executive could soon be horribly exposed. Predictions are that when things go wrong the old guard will attack him, not Mr Brown.

Mr Carter is said to have told Labour officials that working in Number 10 is like being in a surreal cartoon. “With dozens of people all vying for Mr Brown’s attention, it is a bit mad,” agreed one Downing Street man. Mr Carter has also been trying to drum up new policy ideas to beat the Tories. “Bit late for that,” says one Whitehall figure. “It just shows how short of plans, of a narrative they are. And once Easter’s over, editors will be preparing stories to mark Gordon’s first year in power. They could feature an all too brief honeymoon, a cataclysmic divorce from the electorate – and then the house falling down.”

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