It is not in the bag. We must work for every vote. That’s the tone the Tory leadership intends to set at this week’s party conference, the last before the country must go to the polls. But Conservative party activists arriving in Manchester this weekend will dare to believe that their long exile from power is drawing to a close. Defeat for Labour would not only produce the biggest upheaval at Westminster for many years, it would also herald a changing of the establishment guard as Labour thinkers, lobbyists, gurus and fellow travellers find the torch has passed to a new right-of-centre generation.
Who can expect to join the constellation of movers and shakers orbiting a newly elected Conservative prime minister? An FT straw poll of party insiders found surprisingly little consensus. This is partly because Cameron operates a tight inner circle, dominated by “the Quartet” – Cameron; George Osborne, the shadow chancellor; Steve Hilton, director of strategy; and Andy Coulson, head of communications and planning. Close friendships among the “Notting Hill set” of Cameron’s team mean decision-making often happens at social gatherings as well as formal meetings.
“The Cameroons are quite a self-contained and low-profile group… there isn’t a stream of people going into [Cameron’s and Osborne’s offices in] Norman Shaw South,” says Tim Montgomerie, editor of the Conservativehome website.
In attempting to plot membership of the new Tory establishment (aside from the inner circle of unelected advisers), we have singled out key individuals in four broad categories:
Thinkers: policy development is overseen by Oliver Letwin, one of a tiny group of shadow cabinet members consulted on all key decisions. Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, also exerts an important influence. A score of think-tanks jostle to feed into this process, with two dominant. Closest to the leadership is Policy Exchange, although it has clashed with Cameron on some issues. The Centre for Social Justice, founded by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, exerts a strong right-wing influence on family and welfare policy.
The leadership’s links with left-of-centre think-tanks (Osborne and David Willetts, shadow universities secretary, sit on the advisory board of Demos) reflect the continuing importance of Blairite thinking.
Commentators: the Tory leadership keeps a close eye on how it is being portrayed online, as well as in print. Blogs that are seen as the voice of the party faithful – such as Conservativehome, Iain Dale and The Spectator’s coffee house – are watched particularly closely.
Business backers: the financial crisis and the resulting political imperative to be seen as tough on “greedy bankers” means business cannot expect too warm an endorsement from the Tories. But they retain close links with the Square Mile and have highly effective fundraisers in their respected City co-treasurers, Stanley Fink and Michael Spencer.
Pollsters: all parties need quality intelligence on what voters are thinking, though Tory insiders are adamant that focus groups play a lesser role in shaping policy than under New Labour. Cameron insists on using more than one pollster, but Populus does most of the Tories’ private polling.
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Name: Steve Hilton
Position: David Cameron’s director of strategy
CV: the son of Hungarian immigrants, Hilton won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital School in Sussex before reading philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford. He worked at Conservative Central Office, where he became friends with David Cameron and Rachel Whetstone, his future wife (see below). Hilton spent five years with Saatchi & Saatchi and M&C Saatchi, where he came up with the infamous 1997 “demon eyes” campaign attacking Tony Blair, and later set up his own consultancy, Good Business. He returned to the Tory fold after Cameron became leader in 2005 and continued in his role long-distance during a year spent in California, where his wife was working for Google. He’s now back in London for the election.
Between the lines: a workaholic who keeps a very low media profile. Hilton’s typical attire of black T-shirt and jeans – never a suit and tie – reflects his unstuffy approach. He remained plugged in to the Cameron project while overseas by taking part in the leadership’s daily afternoon meeting via Skype.
Influence on Tory high command: difficult to overstate – Hilton is the Tory equivalent of New Labour’s Alastair Campbell. The marketing guru dubbed a “pint-sized Rasputin” by the press is deemed by Cameron to be worth every penny of his reported £180,000 salary. He is the architect of the strategy of decontaminating the Conservative brand by focusing on issues such as the environment and the NHS, and is involved in every important decision Cameron takes.
To left or right of Cameroons? Bang in the centre.
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Name: Andy Coulson
Position: Conservative party’s director of communications and planning
CV: brought up in Essex, Coulson worked on the Basildon Echo for two years before moving to The Sun’s showbusiness pages. He edited the News of the World from 2003 to January 2007, when he resigned over the royal phone-tapping scandal. He was appointed by Cameron as head of communications less than six months later.
Between the lines: straight-talking, streetwise and unflappable. Discreet, as befits a former tabloid editor. Coulson was subject to unwelcome media scrutiny this summer following fresh allegations about illegal phone tapping during his News of the World tenure.
Influence on Tory high command: a vital part of the Cameron project, Coulson has brought much-needed discipline and tactical nous to the Tory media operation. As the Essex Man in the leadership, he plays a key role in reminding the public school-dominated inner circle of the hopes, fears and aspirations of Daily Mail and Sun readers. He is more focused on the day-to-day media battle than longer-term strategy. His value to Cameron was reflected in the fact that the leader rushed to Coulson’s defence in the phone-tapping row in July, stating that he believed in “giving people a second chance”.
To left or right of Cameroons? Instinctively right, professionally perfectly aligned – on (and off) the record.
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Name: Nick Boles
Position: head of Cameron’s implementation team, working under Francis Maude, shadow cabinet office minister, to draw up the Tories’ plans for government. Tory prospective parliamentary candidate for Grantham & Stamford.
CV: scholarship to Winchester, followed by gap year teaching English and Bible studies in Zimbabwe before Oxford and a master’s at Harvard. Boles set up a small DIY business in 1995, which he ran for five years. He was a City of Westminster Tory councillor from 1998 until 2002 and founded the Policy Exchange think-tank that year. He served as its director until 2007. Boles withdrew from the race to be Tory candidate for London mayor in 2008 after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, from which he has now recovered. He was appointed as short-term chief-of-staff to Boris Johnson, helping him in his London mayoralty for the first three months, and now heads a team of officials drawing up Cameron’s preparations for government. He was defeated as the Conservative candidate for the marginal seat of Hove in the 2005 general election, and was selected in 2007 to fight Margaret Thatcher’s old seat of Grantham & Stamford.
Between the lines: eloquent, charming and a networker -par excellence, with Tory roots (a Devon country childhood) and modernising instincts.
Influence on Tory high command: as a core member of the Notting Hill set and one of the leading Tory progressive thinkers, Boles can be guaranteed a hearing for his advice and ideas. His openly gay status may have cost him crucial votes in the last election battle for Hove, but he should win Grantham next year. If he does, he’s set to rise rapidly up the ministerial ladder.
To left or right of Cameroons? Neither – a strong supporter of the Cameron project.
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Name: Anthony Browne
Position: director of policy for Boris Johnson, London mayor
CV: a Cambridge maths graduate, Browne worked as a business analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton, the management consultants, from 1988 to 1989, before going into journalism with the BBC, the Observer and then The Times. He was appointed director of the Policy Exchange think-tank in 2007, and was recruited in October 2008 as head of policy by the new Tory London mayor, Boris Johnson.
Between the lines: a controversial figure, not least for his journalistic attacks on uncontrolled immigration and (in a 2006 pamphlet) political correctness.
Influence on Tory high command: Cameron will be keen to minimise policy differences with a Conservative-run capital in order to reduce the risk of embarrassment. Browne has been working with the Tories on their policy development.
To left or right of Cameroons? To the left on social issues; economically to the right.
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Name: Neil O’Brien
Position: director, Policy Exchange think-tank
CV: O’Brien worked in City PR after graduating from Oxford and before launching Open Europe, a leading Eurosceptic think-tank, in 2005. He took over as head of the Policy Exchange think-tank last September.
Between the lines: media-savvy and well-connected, O’Brien made his name with the “no to the Euro” campaign before spearheading the Tory-backed drive for a British referendum on the Lisbon treaty.
Influence on Tory high command: Policy Exchange is the biggest centre-right think-tank and the one with the strongest links to the Cameron project. O’Brien has demonstrated his independence from the Tory leadership, notably by criticising its pledge to cut inheritance tax (beloved of the party right but an increasing headache for George Osborne). His organisation remains an important influence on policy – and a source of Tory talent. Policy Exchange has been dubbed the “waiting room for the next Conservative government”, a reference to the frequent poaching of its staff by the Tory party and Boris Johnson in the London mayor’s office.
To left or right of Cameroons? Slightly to the left.
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Name: Philippa Stroud
Position: director of the Centre for Social Justice
CV: after graduating from Birmingham University, Stroud spent 17 years in poverty-fighting projects and published a book on social injustice, before co-founding in 2003 the Centre for Social Justice think-tank with Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader. She has been director since 2005 of the party’s social justice policy group, which has produced proposals on the family, education, addiction, debt and employment.
Between the lines: a committed Christian – she says her life is framed by her religion and her family – Stroud can expect rapid ministerial promotion if she wins the marginal Liberal Democrat-held seat of Sutton & Cheam at the next election.
Influence on Tory high command: important (through Iain Duncan Smith) as the voice of the party faithful on traditional Tory social concerns, such as the importance of marriage. But financial constraints mean a new government may not be able to enact her agenda.
To left or right of Cameroons? Well to the right.
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Name: Niall Ferguson
Position: professor of history, Harvard University
CV: educated at Glasgow Academy and Oxford. Following postgraduate work in Germany, Ferguson became a research fellow at Cambridge, then professor of history at Oxford. He has undertaken a transatlantic commute since 2001, working first as professor of financial history at New York University before moving to Harvard in 2004. His books, including Empire (2003), Colossus (2004) and The Ascent of Money (2008), have frequently been accompanied by TV series.
Between the lines: once a self-described “ardent Thatcherite” who now calls himself a “liberal fundamentalist”, Ferguson has revisionist views on rehabilitating imperialism which remain contentious in academic circles. He is a cerebral but accessible historian whose perspective stems from his belief that financial history is the “essential back story” of all history. He is a contributing editor to the FT.
Influence on Tory high command: an informal adviser to Cameron (and John McCain) in the past, particularly on foreign affairs, Ferguson’s views have also informed the Tory leader’s championing of Britishness.
To left or right of Cameroons? Significantly to the right on economic issues, somewhat to the left on social issues.
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Name: Rachel Wolf
Position: founder of a think-tank
CV: studied natural sciences at Cambridge before becoming a political adviser to the Tories. She was special adviser to Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, before leaving to set up her own education think-tank, due to launch this autumn.
Between the lines: young but very connected to the Cameroon hierarchy (and the daughter of FT columnist Martin Wolf).
Influence on Tory high command: the role of her new think-tank in promoting Swedish-style independently run “free schools”, of the type advocated by the Tories, could make Wolf an important voice in the debate on public services.
To left or right of Cameroons? Attuned to modernising, centrist message.
Name: Tim Montgomerie
Position: founder and editor of Conservativehome website for Tory activists; founder of Centre for Social Justice
CV: co-founded the Conservative Christian Fellowship while still a student at Exeter University in 1990. Montgomerie worked for two years as political secretary to Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, and set up Conservativehome as a site for party members and activists in the run-up to the 2005 general election.
Between the lines: affable, reasoned and extremely well-connected with the right of the Tory party.
Influence on Tory high command: Conshome, as it’s known around Westminster, is required reading for the Cameroons, even if they balk at its traditional right stance on some issues. A dominant force in the political blogosphere, the site is seen as the true voice of Tory activists. Montgomerie’s online polls can provide a reality check on putative policies that stray too far from the Tory base. He campaigned strongly against the refusal to promise more grammar schools, and will push to ensure Cameron stays true to his Eurosceptic pledges. Montgomerie called this summer for Cameron to drop his pledge to protect spending on the NHS, offering a foretaste of the battle a new Conservative government is likely to face with the party faithful over tax and spending. He has insisted that this willingness to challenge the official Tory line will not be compromised by the sale earlier this month of a majority stake in the Conservativehome website to Lord Ashcroft, the deputy Conservative party chairman and a major party donor.
To left or right of Cameroons? Well to the right.
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Name: Fraser Nelson
Position: editor, The Spectator magazine
CV: Nelson was educated at Nairn Academy and Glasgow University. He worked for The Times and The Scotsman before joining The Spectator as political editor in 2006; he was promoted to the editor’s chair in late August.
Between the lines: a protégé of Andrew Neil, with a similar style of intellectually abrasive, financially literate, Scottish Toryism.
Influence on Tory high command: his succinct take on politics each week in a News of the World column and his more cerebral Spectator analysis are taken seriously, particularly by the Tory right. The Conservative leadership team will be worried that his editorship will herald a far more hostile approach from what is effectively the party’s house magazine.
To left or right of Cameroons? Well to the right.
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Name: Danny Finkelstein
Position: associate editor/chief leader-writer, The Times
CV: after graduating from the London School of Economics, Finkelstein rose through the ranks of the Social Democrat Party until 1990, staying with David Owen rather than joining the merged Liberal Democrats. Two years later, he joined the Tories. He was director of the Social Market Foundation think-tank for three years and, as director of the Conservative Research Department, between 1995 and 1997, advised John Major, the Conservative prime minister. He served as political adviser to William Hague, leader of the Tories in opposition, between 1997 and 2001. After standing unsuccessfully as a Tory candidate in 2001, Finkelstein joined The Times, where he has worked as chief leader-writer, comment editor and editor of the paper’s online Comment Central.
Between the lines: his frontline experience of losing in the 1997 Labour landslide and fighting in the Tories’ unsuccessful 2001 election campaign made him one of the earliest and strongest advocates of modernisation. Described as both a “Diet Coke addict” and a “policy wonk”, he is part of the self-described “Smith Square set” of Cameroons who first bonded at Conservative Central Office.
Influence on Tory high command: a close friend of George Osborne, albeit one who has proved willing to criticise some core Cameron policies, his views are respected by the Conservative leadership.
To left or right of Cameroons? Broadly sympathetic.
Name: Rachel Whetstone
Position: Vice-president, global communications and public affairs, Google
CV: educated at Benenden, Whetstone worked at the Conservative Research Department in the early 1990s alongside Cameron and her future husband Steve Hilton (see above). She worked for Michael Howard when he was home secretary, before taking public relations roles, first at the TV company Carlton Communications (where Cameron was head of corporate affairs) and then at Portland PR. She returned to advise Howard, by then the Conservative leader, in the Tories’ 2005 general election campaign. Whetstone decamped to Google in November 2005 and was subsequently promoted from Google’s head of European communications to head of global communications and public affairs.
Between the lines: fast-talking, ambitious PR expert in the traditional Tory mould, once dubbed a “young Margaret Thatcher reincarnated” and now a powerful spinner.
Influence on Tory high command: significant – and not by virtue of her marriage to Hilton. Google is a big corporate influence on the Conservative leadership, who are evangelical about the potential for the internet to open up government information and procurement. “I want to bring in a new era of Google government,” Cameron stated in July. The Conservative leader has twice addressed Google’s Zeitgeist conference and this year persuaded Eric Schmidt, the company’s chief executive, to sit as an international adviser on the Tories’ economic recovery committee.
To left or right of Cameroons? A fellow traveller, in so far as she allows her personal views to be known.
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Name: Simon Wolfson
Position: Chief executive, Next
CV: educated at Radley College and Cambridge, Wolfson joined Next (where his father was chairman) in 1991 and has stayed with the retailer all his working life. He was appointed chief executive in 2001, aged just 33. He is a Tory donor (he’s given more than £230,000 since 2006), co-author with John Redwood of the Conservatives’ August 2007 economic competitiveness policy report, and a member of the economic recovery committee that Cameron set up in February.
Between the lines: young and dynamic, his Eurosceptic, deregulatory and tax-cutting instincts chime with traditional Tories.
Influence on Tory high command: very useful as a prominent corporate supporter who publicly backs Cameron (and has rallied other business leaders to do likewise, notably during the 2005 leadership campaign). But the recession has made the radical deregulatory and tax-cutting agenda championed by the Redwood-Wolfson report in 2007 more of an embarrassment than an inspiration to the Tory leadership.
To left or right of Cameroons? To the right economically.
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Name: Sir James Sassoon
Position: adviser to George Osborne; chairman, Institute of Financial Services School of Finance; director, the Nuclear Liabilities Fund and the Merchants Trust; trustee, the British Museum
CV: educated at Eton and Oxford. Qualified as a chartered accountant. From 1985 to 2002, Sassoon worked for UBS Warburg, ending up as vice-chairman of investment banking, with responsibility for the firm’s global privatisation business. He joined the Treasury in 2002, serving for three years as managing director of its finance and industry directorate, and was appointed as the chancellor’s unpaid envoy to the City in December 2005 and president of the Financial Action Task Force 2007-08. He resigned last September, becoming an adviser to the Tories weeks later. He was a member of Cameron’s economic recovery committee and produced a report for Osborne in March on reforming the regulatory system.
Between the lines: a highly successful banker from a classic establishment background; cerebral, soft-spoken and intense.
Influence on Tory high command: Sassoon’s move to the Tories was a political coup, and seen as an indictment of Labour’s deteriorating relations with the City. He is an important link to the Square Mile for the Tories, and has an extensive network of City contacts. The regulatory report came under fire for failing to make definitive recommendations, but Sassoon is expected to gain a peerage and Treasury minister’s job in a Cameron government.
To left or right of Cameroons? Attuned.
Name: Andrew Cooper
Position: strategic director, Populus
CV: after graduating from the London School of Economics, Cooper worked at the Social Market Foundation think-tank. In 1995, he went to work for the Tories as head of polling and then director of strategy during William Hague’s leadership. He left in 1999 to form Populus, the polling organisation.
Between the lines: clear-headed and realistic, Cooper cautioned Hague about a looming Tory defeat – warnings that were amply borne out in the 2001 election.
Influence on Tory high command: a valued source of no?holds-barred advice to Cameron on the mood of the country and how different messages might play with core electoral groups.
To left or right of Cameroons? Professionally neutral.
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Cameron appears to have grown cautious about name-dropping in the area of popular culture after his choice of a Jam hit as a favourite song provoked the furious riposte from Paul Weller: “Is he thick? He probably thinks ‘Eton Rifles’ is a song about him and his mates at school.”
Still, a raft of rather more establishment notables are happy to be associated with the Tory leader. These include veteran rock and pop stars Cilla Black, Bryan Ferry and Rick Wakeman; writers Frederick Forsyth and Julian Fellowes; and from the small screen, Judith Chalmers, Ronnie Corbett and Kirstie Allsopp of Location, Location, Location fame.
Most of the sports stars seen as Tory supporters are somewhat past their heyday: boxer Frank Bruno, cricketer Sir Ian Botham, golfer Nick Faldo and snooker player Steve Davis.
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The money men
Two of the City’s biggest hitters are helping David Cameron to ensure the Tories “blow Labour out of the water” on fundraising in the run-up to the election.
Michael Spencer and Stanley Fink, recruited by the Conservative leader to be the party’s co?treasurers, have each amassed a personal fortune that allows them to be significant donors in their own right. Fink, the former chief executive of Man Group, the hedge fund, gave the Tories £1.1m after being appointed by Cameron earlier this year.
Often referred to as the “godfather” of the British hedge fund industry, Fink is estimated to be worth more than £100m. He is understood to be committed to donating more to the Tories as the election approaches. A keen philanthropist, he sponsors academy schools.
Spencer, the billionaire chief executive of Icap, the world’s largest interdealer broker, was appointed by his friend Cameron in December 2006 to replace Jonathan Marland as treasurer. The Malaysian-born businessman, who founded Icap more than two decades ago, is an avid art collector and a particular fan of Jack Vettriano.
To complement this impressive City firepower and networking capacity, Cameron last year drafted in an old university friend to shake up the Tories’ internal organisation. Andrew Feldman, the party’s chief executive, looks after its biggest donors and spearheads the leader’s efforts to extend the fundraising base.
The nature of Tory fundraising events has also changed under Cameron’s leadership. Figures such as Anya Hindmarch, the fashion designer, have helped to update the traditional, somewhat stuffy, Tory balls.
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Out with the New, in with the ideologues
George Parker considers the parallels, and differences, between 1997’s Blairites and the present-day Cameroons
Tim Allan knows when the political tide is turning. As Tony Blair’s deputy press chief in the run-up to the 1997 election, he was one of a breed of ambitious young people who attached themselves to the “New Labour” project. Now he believes Britain is about to face
a “generational election”, when the country decides to throw out a tired party of government in favour of “a new, young leader more in step with the way the country wants to be”. For Blair read Cameron.
Tim Allan is well placed to judge the difference between the young Blairites and the young Cameroons standing on the brink of power. As the boss of a London PR company identified with “New Labour” he is anxiously trying to reach out to the new Tory establishment, recently signing up George Eustice, Cameron’s former head of press.
Allan believes the new Tories are more politically driven – most of them strongly believe in a smaller state – than the bright-eyed followers of Tony Blair, who seemed more attracted by the allure of change and power.
“I would say that a lot of people in the Conservative party are remarkably ideological at the moment,” he says.
By contrast, Allan and the close-knit coterie around the three architects of New Labour – Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson – appeared united more by what they opposed (old-style socialism) than big new ideas.
Young, media savvy and mainly middle-class, they were suspected and despised by many of Labour’s traditional supporters. They were
also united by a love of football, a number of them playing for a New Labour football team: Demon Eyes.
Many of them went on to exploit their old political connections as PR advisers or lobbyists, among them Allan, Ben Lucas, Jon Mendelsohn, Neal Lawson and Joe Irvin. Others went for political glory instead. Young New Labour apparatchiks now in the cabinet include the brothers Ed and David Miliband, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham. James Purnell, once Blair’s researcher, recently walked out of the cabinet bemoaning Brown’s style of government.
If football was a unifying theme among these ideologically unencumbered young New Labour men, what does Allan consider to be the common interest of David Cameron’s inner circle?
After a long pause, he can only offer: “Politics.” Then he adds: “And cooking. They like cooking. It’s part of the Jamie Oliverisation of British politics.”
Jean Eaglesham is the FT’s chief political correspondent
George Parker is the FT’s political editor.