The moment David Cameron stood before the Conservative Party conference in 2005, offered himself as a candidate for leader and told the party it would have to change, is widely regarded as the moment when the penny dropped. But it wasn’t. The critical moment came the day before. And the man on the stage that day was Francis Maude.
Let’s start at the beginning. When Michael Howard resigned the party leadership after losing the General Election in 2005, he made a series of controversial appointments. He appointed George Osborne as Shadow Chancellor in order to provide him with a platform on which to contest the leadership. He appointed Cameron Shadow Education Secretary for the same reason, and these two made the biggest splash in the media. But among Conservative aficionados, it was his choice of Party Chairman that really put the cat among the pigeons.
Making Francis Maude Party Chairman was a statement of intent. It said that Howard realised the Tories needed to change. Because by the time of his appointment, Maude had become something he had almost certainly never imagined he would be: he had become the party’s leading rebel and a hero to its left and centre.
Back in 1990, Maude was a mainstream establishment right-of-centre Conservative MP. The son of Tory star Angus Maude was becoming a star himself. Regarded during his rise as a tough and talented junior minister, he was also seen – not least by the woman herself – as a firm supporter of Margaret Thatcher. The night before her resignation in November 1990, Maude, then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, was one of the first to be called in to see the Prime Minister and evaluate her position.
In her memoirs, Baroness Thatcher said that she regarded Maude “as a reliable ally” and that “he told me that he passionately supported the things I believed in, that he would back me as long as I went on, but that he did not believe I could win. He left in a state of some distress; nor had he cheered me up noticeably.”
Maude’s passion and reliability remain striking, but the clue to his future lies in the rest of the story. Thatcher’s visitor was a realist, ready to tell it as he saw it. In the leadership election that followed, Maude was a key player, staking out his position as one of the young leaders of the mainstream right and John Major’s successful bid. With his ally in Number 10, Maude then took charge of Major’s big idea – the Citizen’s Charter.
Remembered by satirists as the inspirer of the Prime Minister’s Cones Hotline (set up to ensure that errant traffic cones did not block the motorway), the Citizen’s Charter was more important than that– and more relevant to current controversies. Launching the Charter was Major’s way of signalling that he cared about the quality of public services, that he believed they could be improved without massive spending rises, and that the test was whether they were responsive to consumers.
Using hotlines and offering rebates to dissatisfied customers was only a small part of the programme. Under Maude, the Citizen’s Charter took on a harder edge. He announced in a White Paper a plan to create executive agencies carrying out defined tasks and being held accountable. Public bodies had to publish more information so that their performance was easier to judge. Where possible, Maude pledged to open up services to competition, with private suppliers bidding for business.
It was all very promising. And some of it was transformative – the UK Passport Agency, for instance, slashed the time taken to get a passport. The driver of the Citizen’s Charter was on the edge of a major Cabinet career. But then came the 1992 General Election; Maude lost his seat.
The loss was a terrible political blow to him: Maude had lost when all his peers, rising stars of the same generation, had clung on and were together forming a government. But within a couple of years, the loss didn’t seem such a blow. While the Major government struggled, Maude gained an invisible advantage – he observed without being implicated. His distance lent him perspective, and he began to absorb the lessons of defeat five years earlier than his colleagues.
Back on track
By the time Maude returned to Parliament in 1997 – coming in as peers and friends were going out – his politics had subtly changed. He was still firmly on the dry side economically. But he had gained perspective from his business experience, strengthened his friendship with the brilliant business leader-turned MP and Tory moderniser Archie Norman, and begun to argue that the Conservative Party needed to change. He had been affected too, by an intensely personal experience – in 1993 his homosexual brother died of AIDS. Later, Maude was to say that he blamed this partly on the Conservative Party’s attitude to gay people and the introduction of Section 28 legislation (which banned councils from promoting homosexuality and led to the closure of gay support groups).
But for now, he slotted back as before. With another pragmatic rightist, William Hague, elected as leader, Maude almost immediately returned to the front bench team and it wasn’t long before he was back on track as Shadow Chancellor.
Yet Maude had changed. When Michael Portillo returned to Parliament and the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Chancellor in 1999, Maude shuffled across to Shadow Foreign Secretary and formed a team with Portillo. The two men began to argue for a more moderate, open, socially liberal Conservative Party. There were clashes with the leadership (mostly civilised, mostly private) and with one or two of his advisers (sometimes a little less civilised, and a little less private).
The result of these clashes became more obvious after the 2001 election defeat. Maude ran Portillo’s leadership election campaign and began to argue openly for a big change in strategy. Portillo lost. Maude decided not to serve the winner, Iain Duncan Smith. For the first time, the insider was an outsider. With Portillo withdrawing from the fray, Maude became the beacon for many people who wanted to bring about change.
Maude’s warnings of eclipse for the Conservatives and the threat posed by the Liberal Democrats seriously irritated the party leadership. They didn’t respond well, either, to his urging that the party move to the centre. When Duncan Smith was forced from office, Michael Howard brought Maude into his circle, listening to his advice without necessarily following it.
All this was in his past when Maude took to the stage in Blackpool in 2005 to deliver the Chairman’s speech. But Maude didn’t deliver the traditional, upbeat, ‘aren’t we all doing brilliantly’ speech expected. Instead, he showed the party conference a slide. It demonstrated that party policy on immigration was more popular with voters before they were informed that it was Conservative policy. The slide hit its target. That night, the Conservatives were talking about the need to present ideas differently, to change its brand. When Cameron strode on stage the next day, the audience was ready for him.
In 2007, his initial work on the party machinery complete, Cameron moved his modernising ally to a new role, representing his new preoccupation. Maude was to help the Conservative Party prepare for government. In his preparation, all the facets of Maude could be clearly seen. He used his experience as a senior minister to help others understand the mechanics of government. Most of Maude’s colleagues, including the Prime Minister, had not been ministers before, and Maude helped them negotiate the unfamiliar terrain. He was insistent that Shadow Ministers be careful not to treat civil servants as the enemy and he also made use of his experience as the minister who originated the Citizen’s Charter. The current concern about the objectives of departments and the power of their executive boards has strong Citizen’s Charter echoes. Maude’s toughness in this job is important: he knows what he is trying to do and is hard to throw off track.
Maude’s later period as a moderniser needs to be understood, too. It explains why, while not quite the insider that his Cabinet Office colleague Oliver Letwin (Minister of State) is, Maude still has heft as a Cameron ally. His centre-right politics put him on the same wavelength as the Prime Minister. This is a man Whitehall has to take seriously.