Forest U-turn triggers crisis of confidence in No 10

Downing Street: Firming up policy and departments
Downing Street: Firming up policy and departments

By Ian Dunt

The U-turn over selling off England's forests appears to have triggered a crisis of confidence in Downing Street, with debate starting over how to prevent any further blunders.

No 10 is hiring a high-level team of unelected advisers who would be able to give orders to ministers.

With an average taxpayer-funded pay packet of £100,000, the move is likely to trigger controversy for its financial price tag and its political ramifications.

Some commentators suggest it revives the Blair-era reliance on 'sofa government'. Others are worried it creates a second Cabinet and muddies the decision-making process.

Meanwhile, pressure was being reported from Tory MPs for a Cabinet reshuffle to replace Caroline Spelman, the environment secretary who was forced to conduct the U-turn on forestry policy, along with a host of other ministers who are thought to be struggling.

Ken Clarke, whose liberal prison policy is detested by those on the right, could be a victim of a reshuffle, as might Francis Maude, for his failure to sell the 'big society' agenda.

"The annual reshuffle is a boring cliché and Tony Blair used to give in to it," Mr Clarke said on the Andrew Marr programme today.

"My position has always been based on the collective view of the government. David Cameron runs a collective government.

"When I was appointed it was decided this government would have a moderate justice secretary. I personally think it would be quite a step to suddenly swing to the right."

Ed Miliband sought to exacerbate the government's problems with a speech over the weekend in which he suggested policy was disarray.

"David Cameron might think he is building the big society - but it's not in support of his policies, but against them," he said in a speech to Labour's Welsh conference in Llandudno.

"Forests are just one example of what happens when a government and a prime minister that don't understand what matters to people don't listen to them, and so carelessly destroy the institutions that people value."

But Labour was having managerial problems of its own, with commentators bemused by a demand from Ed Miliband's office that all shadow ministerial statements are cleared with Ed Balls and the party leader.

"New policy statements with spending or economic implications will be cleared with the Leader's office and shadow Treasury teams, working closely together," it reads.

"Issues for clearance will include: any public statement by a frontbencher spokesperson, whether in speech or article or press statement; any contribution to parliament.

"The more notice is given, the easier the process will be. We hope this process will support rather than hinder your work in developing a clear and ambitious agenda for a future Labour government."


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