The Gatekeeper for PM David Cameron: An Interview with Kate Fall 

The Gatekeeper for PM David Cameron: An Interview with Kate Fall 

GRI’s co-founder Basim Al-Ahmadi sat down via Zoom with Kate Fall to discuss her pivotal role as Deputy Chief of Staff under Prime Minister David Cameron, and the achievements, pressures and lessons of Cameron’s premiership. Kate Fall chronicles her fascinating journey in No.10 in her book released in 2020 titled, ‘The Gatekeeper: Life At The Heart of No. 10

Biography – Kate Fall

Kate Fall is a Senior Advisor and executive director of Brunswick’s geopolitical offer and is a member of the House of Lords and a Trustee of Atlantic Partnership. She was deputy chief of staff to David Cameron for 6 years while he was the British Prime Minister and for 5 years when he was Leader of the Opposition. Kate is currently on the Culture Recovery Board and is a member of the International Relations and Defence Committee Lords Select Committee.

Kate was also formerly a Governor of Fairley House School for dyslexic children and is a graduate from Oxford University. She is also the author of The Gatekeeper: Life At The Heart of No. 10.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

GRI

How did Prime Minister Cameron and your team try to shape the media headlines, rather than be preoccupied with reacting to them?

Baroness Fall

We had the advantage of having quite a lot of time to develop our policy ideas because we have been in opposition for five years. The modern “Compassionate Conservatism” which was the theme David Cameron embraced as his governing mantra – liberal on social issues, traditional on fiscal matters – was developed from a group of us meeting in the kitchen of David Cameron’s house when he was a relatively new MP and thinking, “how we are going to get out of this trend of losing elections?” You have to remember where this all started – it was a period of time when Labour continued to win elections (under Tony Blair) and we, as the Conservative Party, needed a game changer to start winning elections again. We felt it was counterproductive to keep sticking to the same themes because it was simply not working – our focus on issues such as immigration and Europe was not resonating with voters, and we believed that it was important that we started to address topics such as social responsibility, equality of opportunity and green environmental policies. Unfortunately, the financial crisis came along of course and derailed our agenda to an extent. As for the media landscape, you must be able to deal with a constant news cycle and learn to firefight 24/7. It is a very difficult and delicate balance – you have to be able to run the country on a day to day and at the same time, think about the future, where you want the country to be in the coming months or years and try our best to implement policies accordingly. And I think what a lot of people struggle with is getting the balance between reacting to the headlines and governing.

GRI

When it came to communicating your agenda and message, what was the overarching strategy of the Cameron government?

Baroness Fall

We were absolutely on the cusp on the social media age. You can argue that the Leave campaign for Brexit was ahead of us on social media and we ran what looked like an old-fashioned campaign. Throughout the Cameron years we would try to shape what the media wanted to write about by trying to shape the start of the week with an “announcement” of some sort on a Monday morning – we wanted to start the week with something strong. The idea was to communicate our values, policies, or strategies, and make announcements or provide data on reform or policy proposals. We tried to also connect with local newspapers. It was a traditional media approach with some social media elements in there, but nothing like how you would need to do it now {with regards to social media outreach}.

GRI

As the Deputy Chief of Staff and gatekeeper, what were your main roles and how did you help the Prime Minister govern?

Baroness Fall

The first thing to say is that it was very difficult – the gatekeeper role is in many ways more important than people realise because you have to prioritize the Prime Minister’s time which means what he or she is focusing on and decide on the people who will be in the room when the big decisions are being made. The importance of having a group of people who can trust each other to argue things out in private and help the Prime Minister reach a decision is paramount to good decision making and governance. That is one of the things Boris Johnson has really struggled with – he does not have a tight team of people who all trust each other. My role was to set the right conditions for good decision making. You are not going to get good decisions if people do not trust each other within government. We set up some structures early on as well to organize the Prime Minister’s time (we had a good parallel operation with senior civil servants we worked with). We would ensure that only the most crucial and complex problems would land on his desk. We would tend to have daily meetings with the Prime Minister and his key advisors and civil servants (including the Chief Whip, Cabinet Secretary etc) which would serve as a “clearing house” – the most pressing issues were discussed, and the Prime Minister would decide on how to move forward on these issues. These daily meetings were a really powerful force of good governance, as it ensured the Prime Minister would be able to make good, daily decisions on topics that needed urgent addressing, with the most trusted advisors around him.

GRI

What role did friendship play in providing the Prime Minister with a sense of comfort and security when making decisions? It is well documented that the Prime Minister had familiar ties with several of his closest aides and cabinet ministers, including yourself, George Osborne, Michael Gove, and others. Did the Prime Minister prefer to have those around him that he felt most comfortable with and could trust?

Baroness Fall

It is a really good question and I think the role of friendship is often overlooked. I think personality is also underestimated – the people side of politics is very important. The human element of politics is what drives politicians and decision-making. Our political system rests on the aspirations, achievements, disappointments, moral compass, belief system of politicians – politics is human.

More important than friendship is trust. It is true that I did know David very well, beginning from our time at the Conservative Research Department where many of us from the Cameron government first met. These were very formative years – the Research department was like the Harvard Kennedy School. We were young, given this tremendous access to research and information and we learnt so much. Those that were with us at the Research department included David, Steve Hilton (served as senior advisor to David Cameron), George Osborne (Chancellor of Exchequer under Cameron) and several others. And then there were other key people in the Opposition that were not with us very early on, including the likes of Amit Gill, Craig Oliver, Oliver Dowden etc. We all bonded during the opposition years.

Trust is absolutely vital – having said all that, there is a dispersion because you have been in this tight group where you only had each other during opposition and then you arrive in government and there is a Rolls Royce machine and you have to fit into the “system”, and ambition and vying for influence starts to play a bigger role. This starts to tease out the friendships. It is complicated. Not all the friendships have lasted the journey. It is quite well-known the fact that David was disappointed by Michael Gove’s choice to fight for Leave {Brexit}, and David felt that both professionally and personally. I think it is perhaps naïve to assume that friends can clash in politics but find it OK to have a beer at the pub afterwards – tempers do fray and passions are high. Friendships can be affected in politics, especially when ambition and ideology come in the way.

GRI

The Prime Minister seemed to exude self-assuredness and calm in public – was his temperament the same in private?

Baroness Fall

David was very grounded, both temperamentally and also by a strong family life – this composed aura that he had was sometimes misunderstood as David being “too relaxed”, and “chillaxing” too much – this was completely misleading. Cameron would work very hard at work all day and had a big intellect, and he gets through the boxes (containing government documents and policy briefings) and when we arrived at number 10, we had the strong impression that they had stopped doing boxes for the previous Prime Minister, and we get to do boxes again – he was very thorough in going through policy notes.

And if we look at the team, and in many ways, it was a collaboration between David Cameron and George Osborne. George was well known or well sought as being more strategic. He was a political engine room – he hired a local policy unit around him who generated a lot of ideas. And David was exceptionally good at selecting which policy ideas he wanted to adopt. David was a classic leader who would gather all the brilliant ideas, in a measured and composed manner, and decide which ones he would want to pursue. He also had a good feel for the people who he was leading in the country. For example, the decision to legalise gay marriage is a good example of where he was not just following the polls. That decision was met with a lot of criticism, especially within the (Conservative) party. And David genuinely believed that it was the right thing to do and sometimes you have to try and get ahead of public opinion and lead – a bit like his Green policy drive as well. People often say, if you are in the centre ground of politics, that means you are not radical or a bit boring. But I do not think that is true. I think you can be immensely creative in the centre.

GRI

Do you think the UK government does enough when it comes to communicating to the public how they are delivering for them and the amount of work that happens behind the scenes to deliver on legislation and programmes that help millions?

Baroness Fall

I think the atmosphere of number 10 {Downing Street} comes from the top. Although I know the whole number 10 thing so well, and I know some of the people still there, but I am an outsider now. Boris has great attributes and has done really well with some things, but number 10 currently feels a bit chaotic and careless, even though there are lots of good things that he is doing and has done. David’s number 10 was centred on decency, punctuality, efficiency, good governance. Did we get everything right? No, of course we did not and the way in which we fell out and the Brexit referendum was particularly painful for us because we tried to resolve something and instead of deciding to stay in Europe which David campaigned for, the public chose to go another path. I think it is important that people have a sense of the men and women who are in charge, get a sense of what makes them tick. Because in the end, they have to trust these people with these big decisions, and I think transparency is important. My feeling is that people do get the measure of their leaders – Boris is popular, people are thankful that he led them through Covid and in the end, I think that people are very smart about what they want and then what they do not want when they decide to change.

GRI

Prime Minister David Cameron admirably entered into politics wanting to steer the Conservative Party towards becoming a more compassionate, forward-looking party. Considering, do you feel that he might regret the extent of the austerity programme, or does he truly believe it was necessary to address the financial crisis?

Baroness Fall

I think it is more complicated than that. If you go back to the financial crisis, we were in real trouble. We were heading off an economic cliff. It meant people having their lives hurt – Greece was falling apart, they were rioting in the streets, and people were queuing at soup kitchens – this was real. It was not an abstract, cold accounting exercise of needing to balance the books from red to black. This was people’s jobs, people’s livelihoods, people’s families, people’s economic security, and David feels and will always feel that your job as Prime Minister is to protect the security of your citizens, both in terms of military security but also their economic security. So that is the first thing. The second thing is, it is a sort of hearsay and relatively true that Tories tend to be fiscally prudent and get the books looking good. And then Labour come in and spend it all.

I think that David was proud of the fact that he got the economy running, it was a jobs recovery – 2 million or so more jobs created. Now, regarding the topic of welfare policy, again, David felt that he started a conversation which was difficult but also important in the country about what is fair for the taxpayer and for the person receiving welfare – that welfare should be there to support people who need to be supported, who are either always need help or transitioning at a difficult stage. As a society, having the conversation about what we believe on this welfare topic is really important. Now, the problem is when you have those conversations, there will always going to be individual stories that are very painful. That is why government has to be “on the ground” and listen to people’s local concerns about policies they are introducing. You have to be able to tread softly and carefully and see how it impacted people. David’s government had great achievements to help working families – we increased the minimum wage, introduced the living wage, we increased the tax allowances. Did we feel proud that we put the finances back on a good foot? Yes. In 2015, I personally was a bit nervous about the extent to some of the further spending cuts planned. If I am honest, I thought we would likely be in coalition with the Lib Dems after the 2015 election. I think the word austerity began to feel like putting the nation on a diet rather than say, ‘we have had to diet for a period of time but now we can eat more freely’.

GRI

Do you think the Prime Minister looks back and feels he missed an opportunity to implement his “compassionate conservative” agenda which shaped his early years in politics and propelled him to power?

Baroness Fall

I think I think he did try and drive forward some of the reforms – the glue that bound the coalition together was the financial rescue plan, austerity, depending on how you want to put it. There was a reform agenda going along in parallel. There was a serious conversation about welfare – even Harriet Harman (then Acting Leader of the Labour Party) encouraged Labour MP’s to support the 2015 Welfare Bill which we proposed. That opened a conversation nationally about welfare which people did respond to. Then there was progress on education, the free school movement, equality with gay marriage and global aid spending (increased under Cameron to 0.7% of the budget) – the latter was not only to stand by the world’s poor but to also try to fix global problems such as mass migration, conflict and disease. You are absolutely right that Cameron as opposition, that whole “life chances agenda”, the social agenda, this “compassionate conservative” agenda did get put in the back seat slightly during the financial crisis. It was however somewhat revived after the 2015 election with some talk about prison reform for example but of course, the Brexit debate and subsequent referendum just completely took over.

GRI

Do you feel the public sympathise with the Prime Minister that he had a very difficult job at hand with the financial crisis and had to make difficult decisions?

Baroness Fall

I think so. Why did they vote for David Cameron again in 2015? I think that the British people generally want their government to be fiscally prudent although we may be entering a stage of big state with problems such as Covid, climate and social care which need government action. And, politics right now does feel in a different stage. With Brexit and Boris, the current political landscape signifies a different mood – you could call it identity politics. Boris is quite populist and big picture. The response he had from the northern seats that were normally Labour strongholds speaks to the way that Boris has touched them in a way which is ideological and less transactional.

GRI

What was your proudest moment during your time at Number 10?

Baroness Fall

In 2014 when the economy really picked up and people got more jobs, and we were I think, the fastest growing country in the G7 – that was a very proud moment, as well as legalising gay marriage. In terms of my proudest moment, on an emotional level, I think that is the moment I walked back through the door at five in the morning after David won the 2015 election, and just took my place back at my seat. I mean, you fight an election, and you realise how far you are from the place you were working, and to be trusted and have the opportunity and honour and a way to get to go back into the sit back down to serve the public – that was a true honour.

GRI

How has life been after leaving such as an intense and rewarding experience in politics – have you adjusted to a new tempo?

Baroness Fall

It is a difficult transition, because you just have been for 11 years in such a bubble. And then we are now less fast moving. I think the biggest difference is the sort of solidarity of purpose that comes from a team where you wake up every morning and work to help the Prime Minister run the country. It is not only the friendships we developed in Number 10 but the solidarity of purpose to serve the country. It is that unique team spirit which is very hard to replicate. I am enjoying my new career paths and have been incredibly lucky to have had the experiences in Number 10.

GRI

What does the future hold for bipartisanship in the UK – do you believe that there is room for compromise across the aisle?

Baroness Fall

When you have two leaders for example Ed Miliband (Leader of the Labour Party between 2010-2015) versus David Cameron, who were competing for the centre ground, they were not miles apart from each other. That does not mean you pat each other on the back and have drinks because you know, you still want to be in power. Recently, we had a period where it was between two populists, Boris and Jeremy Corbyn (Leader of the Labour Party between 2015-2020), even though they are worlds apart in terms of policy. Is there bipartisanship in the UK? Well, it is important to note that it is different in the United States, because often the executive has to reach out to the legislative and it depends on who is running the Congressional houses (in the UK the Prime Minister would typically have a majority in Parliament). In the Lords, there is much more collaboration and there is much more, you know, sitting on committees, liking each other and making speeches. In the Commons, it really is less like that. Having said there are some good relationships “across the aisle”. The MPs are respectful to each other, but very rarely do you see people from the Labour Party and the Tory party, you know, having a drink together.

Categories: Economics, Europe, Politics

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