Interview: Policy Exchange's Neil O'Brien

Neil O'Brien is director of Policy Exchange
Neil O'Brien is director of Policy Exchange

It's not Policy Exchange's fault the Conservatives like their policies. They're a centre-right thinktank. They can't help it.

By Alex Stevenson

Take Grant Shapps, for example, the party's shadow housing minister. Little did I realise when I reported on his 'right-to-move' proposal last spring that this policy had come, more or less, straight from the Policy Exchange stable. "Sometimes you know you just have a neat idea which nobody has come up with before," the thinktank's director Neil O'Brien tells me proudly. The right-to-move policy was adopted within two weeks. Not a bad turnaround for 'David Cameron's favourite thinktank'.

It is an absolute certainty that anyone even vaguely connected with 'P-Ex', as O'Brien calls it, will wince when they read this tag.

But there is much to link Policy Exchange with the Tories. It was formed by a group of ex-backroom Conservatives following the 2001 leadership election, when debate on the right-wing of British politics was an incessant merry-go-round of "Europe, migration, Europe migration". "There was a desire for somebody to start looking at issues which no one in the centre right were interested in," O'Brien remembers.

He cites a useful phrase of Tim Montgomerie's: 'the politics of and', which rejects the false choice between talking about either Europe and migration or the public services. "You've got to talk about all these things, together".

This modernising spirit, the revival of a rounded approach to politics from the centre-right, took a little longer to take hold in the Tory party. Michael Howard's 2005 defeat finally brought to the fore the member for Witney, who would spend the next four years dragging his party back to electability. He's had help along the way by some bright ideas from Policy Exchange.

But, as all good thinktank directors know, being associated with a particular political party holds many more perils than it does advantages. "If you say anything off-message it's used as a stick to beat David Cameron with," O'Brien says. "It's not good for him, it's not good for us."

Fortunately a blessing in the disguise of a monster media storm has gone some way to changing perceptions. On August 13th 2008 Policy Exchange published a report called Cities Unlimited. "What a lot of people thought we were saying - that the north is a load of sh*t - was not what we were saying," O'Brien says. The silly season, combined with some excessive enthusiasm from the PR people pushing the report to hacks, created a situation which was "unfortunate in lots of different ways". Eager journalists clamoured for even a hint of approval from the Tories. Clearly disassociating themselves, the Conservative party branded the report "insane".

Everyone has their own moments of supreme discomfort, when circumstances get beyond them and the only solution appears to wriggle away into obscurity forever. Policy Exchange's crisis had an unexpected advantage, however. "Insofar as there was an upside", it got across the idea that Policy Exchange is not an "appendage" of the Conservative party.

A lot of water has passed under Westminster Bridge since then. Alistair Darling's 2008 Pre-Budget Report transformed the political landscape. Britain entered its longest recession since records began; and the world of thinktanks has moved on significantly.

Ironically, though, these events have been a plus to the policy wonk world. The fruit of the recession, the fiscal crisis, has raised the bar for those whose job it is to propose ways of spending taxpayers' money better. Only those which are well-constructed and properly thought-through will survive, so the theory goes. O'Brien claims Policy Exchange is flourishing. Despite the contracting economy it had its best financial year in 2009. It is gradually expanding - "in a stable way".

Part of this, one suspects, is because of the distinctive attitude O'Brien seems to be offering. He's not running out of ideas. "There is shedloads to do, we're not going to be bored. I can't think of a better time to be in thinktank land for a very long time."

I should have guessed this the moment I walked in the front door. The atmosphere in the main office area is one of feverish but muted labour, like an Oxbridge library the week before exams begin. It lacks the airy floatiness of Demos, whose workers are better dressed, or the unabashed earnestness of the IPPR. Instead the mood here is one of getting down to business - the serious business of telling politicians what to do.

The sense is O'Brien is behind all this. His interest is not in excessive pondering about ideology and philosophy, but making a difference on the ground, now. It's his way of dealing with a constant tension faced by all thinktanks: how to remain relevant and interesting without losing sight of the bigger picture?

"I would say the conflict's a bit different to that," he says. "Sometimes you will want to look at a subject because it's big and hugely important.

"It's not incremental - it's what you can do now to make things better, rather than tearing things up. This is what you can practically do in politics. I would say we are about applied policy rather than super-duper ultra blue sky thinking."

The result is the culture of pragmatism which underpins Policy Exchange's work. It is interested in coming up with answers, now. There are many of these on offer: O'Brien really does have "shedloads" of ideas. In the half-hour we spent together he expressed enthusiasm about reforming the child poverty target, culling expensive public sector IT projects, medical assessment of disability allowance, urban regeneration policies, the shape of the criminal justice system, school choice, planning law, housing policy, pension reform, information in the public sector and contextual value-added league tables. One of Policy Exchange's principle virtues, he says, is that is the only thinktank on the right to cover everything. It's clear he really means it.

Even the location is practical. Policy Exchange's offices, with the Treasury at the end of the street, couldn't be more conveniently located. Parliament is two minutes' walk away. But locating Policy Exchange on the political map may be slightly harder.

After 30 minutes of confident talking, the interview hits an unexpected roadblock when I ask O'Brien to sum up the thinktank's philosophy.

"Philosophy?" he replies, a look of panic flitting across his face. "Erm..."

This is unexpected. I suggest the impulse towards practicality runs deeper than I had suspected.

"It is quite pragmatic. I do think most things fail in implementation rather than a result of some massive philosophical mistake," he continues, somewhat relieved. Initially he refers me to Policy Exchange's website, where there is some blurb explaining this sort of thing. But then he has a go himself.

"I suppose in a very blunt form it would be about trying to come up with a vision of a dynamic economy of successful capitalism but one which is not uncaring... It's a fairly friendly vision of a free society, I suppose. Pretty centrist!"

In fact the most dominant interests are in "free market and localist stuff", as O'Brien put it earlier. This explains why the ideas are often of more interest to those on the centre-right. Ultimately, though, Policy Exchange is a thinktank which is appealing across the board. The Liberal Democrats recently adopted its report on infrastructure. The government has taken on board its work on gang injunctions and youth justice.

"There's something we do here for everyone, that's a good place to be," O'Brien presses. "We're not focused on one political party." No one is suggesting you are, Neil. Not any more, anyway.


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