Patience: a virtue the Tories are yet to find

GUEST POST: Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher. Connect on LinkedIn. Follow on Twitter

The suggestion that 2021 should mark the end of the road for Boris Johnson’s premiership has been gaining oxygen in Tory circles. Some claim that the Prime Minister has lost his way, “run out of steam” and even been fundamentally changed by his near-death experience. While the pandemic has undoubtedly steered him along a different path to the one both he and the Party could ever have expected in December 2019, any attempt to change the Leader next year would be a short-sighted move. Such an act would not only be the most futile use of the Party’s political capital, but an embarrassment to Conservative voters – old and new – across the country. Tories must find patience.

The bigger picture

Firstly, we must look at the bigger picture. The nation is exhausted; exhausted by months of facing the endless threat of a deadly virus and all the subsequent safety restrictions, cancelled holidays, missed family gatherings and the normality of life.

As things stand, more than half a million young people in the UK are now unemployed. The economy is experiencing its deepest ever recession. Economic forecasts for 2021 look even gloomier, with the Bank of England expecting rates of unemployment to rise to 8.2 per cent and predicting it will take over two years for the country’s finances to get anywhere near their pre-Covid levels.

Clearly, there are bigger issues facing the country than inane discussions over party leadership. We should certainly expect the electorate to be unforgiving of any such party who squandered a second of its time in government, especially right now and on such a self-indulgent exercise as this.

Levelling-up agenda

Secondly, the Party must not forget why the Tories were returned to power in 2019 for a fourth successive time, with their largest majority since 1987. The PM’s promise of defeating Jeremy Corbyn, “getting Brexit done” and levelling-up the country was one that not only Conservative voters found compelling, but one that many never-before Tory voters believed in, and, indeed, placed their trust in.

These formerly “red-wall” seats across the north and Midlands were attracted to his ambitious levelling-up agenda, including his promise of delivering UK-wide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, improving transport connectivity across the country and delivering jobs, opportunities and better infrastructure in these regions too often left-behind.

Levelling-up the country is a long-term ambition for the country and the Party must give him the time to deliver on this. If successful, the Conservatives could cement this broader voter base for decades to come, locking the Labour Party out of government indefinitely. Alternatively, a change in party leadership now, without having delivered on these existing promises, would be — and I use this word reluctantly — a betrayal of the trust placed in them by voters at the 2019 election. The Party must let him finish what he has started.

Beyond the bubble

Finally, the Westminster bubble has been and is guilty of overlooking the PM’s much broader appeal. The “bumbling buffoon” act that so many dismissed Johnson for at every opportunity over the last four years is precisely why he appeals to the great British public. He is quite different.

Some argue that recent polling shows support among the public for the PM is waning and therefore the Party should begin to look for his replacement. However, the Conservatives remain head to head with Labour in the polls, and any effort to change the party leadership in 2021 would only further hinder their ability to deliver on its promises, paving the way for an increasingly popular Sir Keir.

A change of party leadership in 2021 would be an extremely short-sighted move. There’s no question that Boris Johnson has not had the start to his premiership that he, nor anyone for that matter, would have expected nor wanted. However, if we should learn anything from the events of the last four years, it is that four years is a very long time in politics. The electorate has placed its trust once again in the Conservatives to deliver real change across the UK. The Conservative Party owes it to the country to be patient with the Prime Minister, forget any self-indulgent leadership contest and give him the time to deliver.

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This piece was written for this website.

In conversation with five mentees

Chantelle de Villiers

Adam: What’s your current role?

Chantelle: External Affairs Adviser at the British Retail Consortium (BRC) which is the go-to trade association for all retail businesses in the UK. My role is to represent the industry to Government by telling the story of retail, to drive positive change and create an economic and policy environment that enables retail businesses to thrive.

Adam: Why did you join the CiC-Start scheme?

Chantelle: I always strive to reach my full potential and I am committed to developing my skill set. The CiC-Start scheme provides a fantastic opportunity to learn new skills from more experienced professionals and think differently about approaches to political or communications campaigns.

Adam: What do you want to achieve from the mentoring programme?

Chantelle: I’m interested in ‘doing’ public affairs differently, particularly now as we have all had to adjust to a new way of working and engaging with stakeholders virtually. I hope to get a different perspective as to how to deploy and utilise strategic communications to help achieve a campaign objective.

Adam: Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

Chantelle: At some point I’d like to try agency life and get more exposure to working in different industries. I have a passion for campaigning and so I hope in five years I have achieved some big campaign wins and can move into a more advisory role.

Adam: What is your favourite campaign slogan?

Chantelle: The three most famous words of 2016, “Take Back Control,” that made what many thought was the impossible, possible. It was a genius strategy which packaged up many issues into one and resonated with a lot of people from different walks of life.

Alex Cassells

Adam: What’s your current role?

Alex: I’m an Account Manager in the corporate team at 3 Monkeys Zeno, a global communications firm. While my background is in public affairs and politics, I support a range of clients within the consumer technology, finance as well as recruitment industries; offering various aspects of corporate communications support. My goal is to become a leader that junior colleagues aspire to be and that senior colleagues know they can depend on.

Adam: What do you want to achieve from the CiC-Start mentoring programme?

Alex: We learn through observing and listening to those around us. 3 Monkeys Zeno has many positive leaders who I learn from each day, however, I’m always open to broadening the range of mentors that influence my career trajectory. I truly believe my assigned mentor is one of the best the industry has to offer, and I can improve as a consultant through taking on board the lessons they offer me.

Adam: Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

Alex: Personally, I try not to plan too far ahead, as I think it has the propensity to alter your judgement on the immediate situation you are in and the opportunities that lie in front of you. Whatever road I do take, I aim to be pushing career boundaries and be proud of the achievements I’ve had by that stage in my career.

Adam: What’s your advice for young people hoping to get into the profession?

Alex: It is tough starting on the career ladder (especially in communications), but I cannot stress enough the importance of building your network. There is no benefit of being shy at a networking event, so get out there and meet people. You never know what opportunities might come out of just talking to new and old connections. Also, when crafting your CV, focus on those few things that make you unique from the other 100 CVs that your future employer may look at.

Adam: What is your favourite campaign slogan?

Alex: “Yes We Can” from Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. This is my favourite slogan because it is concise, simple to understand and inspires both hope and patriotism. Communications involves conveying a message to an audience in the easiest way. However, at times, it’s also about having your message create an emotion that results in a clear action. These three words do just that and contributed to his decisive victory.

Samir Dwesar

Adam: What’s your current role?

Samir: I’m a Senior Account Manager at Cavendish Advocacy, where I support our directors in managing client accounts across many sectors, including the environment, technology and travel. I also help the consultancy secure new business and work closely with junior colleagues on their professional development.

Adam: Why did you join the CiC-Start scheme?

Samir: Having only worked in an agency environment for a year (I have an in-house background), I was very keen to learn from someone who had considerably more consultancy experience. I also see the scheme as a hugely valuable opportunity to think a little outside the box about what I want to achieve in terms of professional and personal development.

Adam: What do you want to achieve from the mentoring programme?

Samir: During the introductory meeting with my new mentor, I outlined how I was keen to focus on tips and strategies for generating new business, how to successfully build and develop client relationships as well as how to become a trusted colleague and go-to person for my areas of strength. I would also like to build my confidence when it comes to writing proposals and pitching.

Adam: Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

Samir: This is always a tricky question! Leaving in-house for agency was absolutely the right choice for me, and I hope to thrive and remain in this environment. In five years’ time, success for me would of course be a more seniority and a few new business wins, but above all having clients who I love working with and a continued supportive workplace environment.

Adam: What is your favourite campaign slogan?

Samir: “It’s Morning Again in America” from the 1984 presidential election. Not only does it come from one of the most effective campaign ads in US political history, it evokes a sense of optimism, patriotism and success.

Phoebe Sullivan

Adam: What’s your current role?

Phoebe: I’m an Account Manager within the growing public affairs team at Built Environment Communications Group (BECG). I help develop stakeholder engagement strategies and project management across London and further afield. My day-to-day projects range from masterplan housebuilding to DCO consultations. I’m also reaching the end of my master’s degree in global diplomacy.

Adam: What do you want to achieve from the CiC-Start mentoring scheme?

Phoebe: BECG has really helped me understand the role and importance of communications within the business framework. Many of the directors have already assumed the unofficial role of mentor, however I appreciate the value in learning from others beyond my immediate BECG network. I believe my assigned mentor from this programme will provide invaluable insight, which I can relay onto others one day.

Adam: Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

Phoebe: I’d like to progress my career and gain new experiences in larger, more diverse projects and campaigns as well as develop further skills in both management and strategy. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve received so far and am looking forward to meeting more people in our field and getting further involved in different organisations and think tanks.

Adam: What’s your advice for young people hoping to get into the profession?

Phoebe: Practice great time management… every day. Having a full-time job, completing a master’s degree part-time and being heavily active within my local association (or any extra-curricular for that matter) can be straining at the best of times. However, it’s all worth it in the end and one must diversify when our CV’s may not be as solid as others. I would advise participating in as much as is possible, going for the difficult projects, the extra qualifications or getting more involved in your local association. In order to do this, we must practice the art of great time management – although that’s easier said than done!

Adam: Who inspires you and what one tip can you share?

Phoebe: My current favourite quote: “Do the best you can in every task, no matter how unimportant it may seem at the time. No one learns more about a problem than the person at the bottom” – Sandra Day O’Conner, Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

One tip which I’ve found useful: The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand, we listen to reply. I only have limited experience, but I have found that when you’re starting out it’s imperative to listen to understand and not simply just reply.

Oliver Hazell

Adam: What’s your current role?

Oliver: I’m a Senior Account Manager at Cavendish Advocacy, where I support a range of clients to assess what they need to promote or defend their interests. I also support our team with various new business opportunities. My aim is to develop into a colleague who directors can trust to deliver high-quality proposals as well as guide junior colleagues on strategic queries.

Adam: Why did you join the CiC-Start scheme?

Oliver: I want to continue developing professionally, and that means discovering new ways to innovate, think differently and add real value for clients. Cavendish Advocacy offers excellent development opportunities, however I believe it’s useful to utilise industry networks too.

Adam: What do you want to achieve from the mentoring programme?

Oliver: I want to rethink about my professional development i.e. my career is more of a journey I will go on – with employers supporting me. I’ve had my first mentoring session and we’ve already set personal goals for me to achieve, which is really positive.  

Adam: Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

Oliver: My mentor posed this exact question during our first session. I thought I had this mapped out in achieving a certain level of seniority. But through our discussion, I realised I need to look at which internal and client-facing roles I enjoy the most and what managerial skills I really want to develop.

Adam: What is your favourite campaign slogan?

Oliver: The Tory Party’s 2015 “Long-Term Economic Plan”. Having worked on that election campaign and seen firsthand the message discipline, it was a real learning opportunity.

Keeping a cool head in a crisis

GUEST POST: Mike Love is Patron of Conservatives in Communications. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

As I write I’m listening to news reports in the UK critical of the Government’s latest anti-Covid-19 measures for not being restrictive enough and for “not following the science.”

Until now, the loudest criticisms had been that they had acted in too draconian a way and had slavishly “followed the science.”

Anybody who has shared my experience of being a crisis manager will sympathise with the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” fate we have all known at one time or another and that those government crisis managers and their political masters must be experiencing today.

When I’ve been in “the war room” managing a crisis I’ve always tried to shut out those “we know better” voices.

That risks ignoring what might be good advice, but the greater risk is that you become dazzled like the rabbit in the headlights by bright but allusory and dangerous shiny objects which might seem momentarily attractive as “get out of jail cards” but almost certainly needed greater scrutiny than you have time to give.

My apologies for metaphor and allegory overload!

A good crisis manager is one who can in Kipling’s words “keep their head when all about them are losing theirs.” Figuratively, not literally hopefully.

Keeping your nerve is probably to key attribute required.

In a crisis situation things invariably change fast and furiously. Best laid plans fall apart and wargamed playbook scenarios are too often quickly become irrelevant. And if you have time to read the Crisis Manual then you aren’t really in a crisis.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a great believer in preparation and planning. And manuals!

The best professional advice I ever received was from my friend Harvey Thomas, famed former “advance man” to Billy Graham and Margaret Thatcher. I asked him for his top three tips and they were “prepare, prepare and prepare.”

The LEADS Test after which my blog is named was itself a methodology I developed not just to help corporate leaders to make tough policy decisions but also to be used as a war-gaming techniques to help plan, prepare and test those scenarios to develop a best practice playbook.

But these techniques and methodologies were designed for crisis training – to help business leaders and their communicators to prepare for the worst days that hopefully would never happen and to guide them in conducting business and communications in ways to help prevent them from happening at all. The training should help you to understand how to make the decisions, not to dictate what those decisions will be.

I’ve not managed a crisis where the scenarios ever neatly fitted our pre-planned playbooks. But every single one of them fitted the lesson from preparing them – to understand how to take responsibility.

In many organisations, particularly big ones, taking responsibility is something people try to avoid. Afterall there’s always a consultant or adviser to blame, and in the biggest organisations there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of people to help take the blame when it goes wrong, but strangely they rarely share the credit when it goes well.

The key learning for participants in those preparation and war-gaming exercises, the only one that really matters, is to learn how to behave in a crisis. Not so much what to do, as specifics vary enormously, but to understand how, when and why things should be done.

The best crisis management preparation and training is to learn how to be in the right frame of mind, to ignore siren voices, and to keep your nerve.

When decisions are made, they are your responsibility. Whether things go well or not, it’s important to remember the mantra famously espoused by one of my former bosses Margaret Thatcher: “advisers advise and ministers decide.”

No matter how many people are in the room, literally and figuratively, giving advice, and no matter how many “we know better” heads are outside it shouting in, the ability to take responsibility for your decision is ultimately why you are paid to be there.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for Mike’s blog.

We live in different times

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications and Founder & Director of do Different.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had to do different; and that ability to adapt has never been more important. I was born, went to school and – for all intents and purposes – spent most of my teenage years in Beverley, a market town in East Yorkshire famed for its Minster, Westwood and racecourse. I consider myself to be a Beverlonian.  

With my parents passing away when I was quite young, and my sister at university on the other side of the Pennines, I had to grow up quickly living on my own.  

I recall a handful of conversations with my Dad – him telling me never to forget my roots, and that if I put the hours in it would pay off in the end. Heeding that good advice, I read plenty of books, got my GCSEs and worked every weekend. 

Somewhere along the way I developed an interest in politics. I later learned my great uncle, Arthur Watts of Watts Bros. hauliers, was Mayor of Beverley (1939 – 43). As I write this, a model of one of those trucks sits proudly on my desk.  

During sixth form, I chose to study politics at night college and my enthusiasm grew stronger. With A-levels under my belt, I secured a place at UEA and off to Norwich I went.   

It’s well-known that ‘People in Norfolk do things different.’ We’d get along handsomely during those three years, and I’m forever grateful for the opportunities and experiences that I had.  

Fast forward 13 more and I’ve had the honour of working on behalf of a variety of organisations based around the world. Today, I’m following the trend of launching a UK-based start-up during lockdown; a business that does things… differently. 

It’s time to do different

But it’s not just about me; for we live in different times and we must all do different. 

Before Christmas, I wrote: “2020 is going to be a year like no other. Fasten your seatbelts, folks – you’re in for a wild ride.” I meant the UK could move forward after years of Parliamentary stalemate and the Government could focus on levelling-up the country. 

However, nobody knew what was around the corner. 

Much of what’s taken place over the past six months has been in the works for a while. What’s happened is the pandemic has accelerated the rate at which governments, organisations and individuals alike were already adapting to new expectations. 

You could argue that there’s been – apologies in advance to all PRs and journalists – a turning point, a sea change or as one politician cited: a paradigm shift.  

Even when we find a vaccine, I doubt we’ll return to our old ways of working and living; a lot has happened. We’ve become accustomed to new habits and norms, and become more resilient. 

But with all this change – for example, how we work, how we spend and how we consume information – there is a renewed emphasis on businesses to understand the landscape in which they operate and the world in which their stakeholders now live, while ensuring they continue to stand out from the crowd. 

In this regard, people need partners who get the big picture, get what needs to be done and can get stuff done. That’s me. 

Only then, can you sit down and join our American friends across the pond in sipping a delicious cup of Yorkshire Tea – sales of which have soared 926% – as they stock up to see through the presidential campaign.  

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for Adam’s company website.

Set Boris free

GUEST POST: Peter Bingle is Director at The Terrapin Group. Connect on LinkedIn

In these strange virtual times, this year’s online party conference has a special importance, not just for the Tory Party but also for the Prime Minister. His speech will help to define the rest of his tenure at Number 10.

I have supported Boris Johnson since his first campaign to become Mayor of London. In a world full of dullness and a body politic stuffed full with the second rate and dull, he was a real breath of fresh air. He discarded political correctness, but crucially exuded optimism and fun. 

I predicted that he would beat Ken on both occasions. It wasn’t hard to do so! Londoners loved this political maverick who made us all smile, chuckle and even laugh out loud. His record at City Hall was superb, thanks to his two great chiefs of staff – Sir Simon Milton and Sir Edward Lister. 

There was no greater supporter of Boris when he announced he was a candidate to succeed the hapless Theresa May. Here was a Tory who could inject zest and optimism into a political party which resembled a corpse. 

My only fear was some of the people advising him. I dismissed those worries, but time has shown that I was quite right to be concerned. 

In the December election, I predicted a majority of eighty and was delighted by the result. Boris could now literally change the political landscape for a generation. A politician who appealed to people from every walk of life. Once again, the Tory Party was a national political force. Our PM was a populist who understood what made normal voters tick. 

However, the problems started long before the pandemic. He chose a weak Cabinet and the Number 10 team, with a few exceptions, makes his predecessors’ team look competent. That is some achievement! The political ramifications are now all too clear. 

Firstly, Boris no longer exudes optimism and confidence. Folk are now starting to laugh at him rather than with him. His attempt to position himself as a modern day Churchill is just plain silly. 

Secondly, Boris no longer seems in control of events. He is a reactive PM who is now defined by an increasing number of U-turns. Boris doesn’t appear to have a grip on what is happening. 

Thirdly, Boris is being let down by a Number 10 team which doesn’t seem to understand the concepts of strategic communications and messaging. The Cabinet is also weak. 

Lastly, I no longer have any idea if the government has a policy agenda. The one exception concerns the increasing role of the state. There has never been such a ‘Big State’ government. This isn’t why people vote Tory …

For all of this, I still have faith in Boris. He needs to show us that he is not only in control but actually still wants to be PM. Then he can start the crucial task of rebuilding and re-energising his special rapport with the British people. 

The first stage is a ministerial cull of epic proportions. There is great talent on the back-benches, which needs to be tapped into. Not just youngsters but also former ministers and people who should have been made ministers in previous governments. 

The second stage is to have a very clear policy agenda which embraces and motivates traditional and new Tory voters. Economic competence must underpin all the government’s future actions but so too must a belief in the primacy of the individual rather than of the state. 

The final and arguably most important stage is to set Boris free. On form, this is a politician like no other. Never have people needed to be cheered up more than now. Boris is the political antidote to the gloom created by the pandemic. His advisers need to play to his strengths. 

The next six months will determine the success or otherwise of the government. We need both inspiration and optimism in equal measure. Boris remains the man to deliver both. Britain needs him. 

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website.

Tories should fear Sir Keir – and figure how to beat him

GUEST POST: Peter Cardwell advised four Cabinet ministers in the May and Johnson administrations. He is the author of ‘The Secret Life of Special Advisers’, published on October 27. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

We’ve seen a lot of Keir Starmer this week: a Marr sit-down, a set-piece speech in lieu of a conference speech – in front of a handy physical red wall – and another strong performance at PMQs, understandably leading on test and trace. However, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Keir Starmer’s views. Would he back a future EU trade deal? Is he in favour of extending the transition period? Would he go for another Scottish independence referendum? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But, what I – as a Tory – do know is on a much more fundamental level he scares the living daylights out of me.   

His detoxification of the Labour brand is going just a bit too well. His new phrase “a new leadership” may be bland, however it is not meaningless. Because it is allowing Starmer, very effectively, to distance himself from the three greatest problems which dogged Corbyn: antisemitism, patriotism and security. 

On antisemitism, Starmer came down very hard on Rebecca Long-Bailey in June, sacking the former Shadow Education Secretary after she retweeted an article containing an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Helpfully for Starmer, John McDonnell stood in solidarity with her. Starmer looked decisive, leaderly and even gained praise from the Board of Deputies. 

On patriotism, can you honestly imagine Corbyn reacting to the “Rule, Britannia!” row with a strong defence of the “pomp and pageantry” as “a staple of British summer”? Thought not. 

And on security – Corbyn’s weakest issue – at PMQs three weeks ago Starmer reacted with genuine fury when Boris Johnson suggested Starmer was soft on terrorism because he had backed Corbyn. Starmer’s record as Director of Public Prosecutions speaks for itself, and Labour strategists plan to remind the public often of their leader’s key role in prosecuting the terrorists who planned the Heathrow bomb plot, ‘Britain’s 9/11’. And it’s no accident that Starmer returned to this theme in his leader’s address on Monday. There could hardly be a less Corbyn phrase than expressing a desire for: “security for our nation, our families and all of our communities… We love this country as you do.” 

In fairness, we Conservatives have had it good for so long when it comes to Opposition leaders.  Ed Miliband was a man who couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich effectively, never mind run a country. Jeremy Corbyn was popular with people who didn’t come out to vote and scared away many sensible people who did into voting Conservative. Along with Dominic Cummings and bearded Antipodean svengali Isaac Levido, Corbyn was one of we Conservatives’ three greatest assets in December’s election. 

And despite his lack of charisma, his slightly plodding manner and a front bench a little too full of unknowns, Starmer continues to subtly, slowly put clear red water between himself and his predecessor. This brand detoxification is the hugely important first step. 

So much so that CCHQ attacks on Starmer have been linking him to Corbyn, just as Republicans attack Joe Biden by linking him to the more toxic Hillary Clinton. That’s just not strong enough a strategy, and the Conservative operation will need to work harder. Starmer has certainly got me worried. And that’s why we Conservatives need to start planning how to beat him in 2024 right now. 

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for The Times.

Britishness is normal. Unionists should say so

GUEST POST: Fraser Raleigh is an Associate Director at Newington Communications and a former Conservative Special AdviserFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Westminster always wakes up late when it comes to the Union. The alarm is ringing on a constitutional nightmare if the SNP win a majority at next May’s elections to the Scottish parliament.

In 2014, it took a surprising 51-49 poll in favour of Yes just before the independence referendum to stop it sleepwalking into the break-up of the United Kingdom. Since then, Westminster has hit the snooze button time and time again.

In 2015, Scotland sent 56 separatist MPs to Westminster. Unionists sent three. In 2016, the two nations most comfortable in the Union – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU and the two most restive – Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted to remain.

Between 2017 and 2019, the UK government allowed itself to be propped up by the DUP, causing lasting distrust among nationalist and unaligned communities in Northern Ireland. And so in 2020 Britain left the EU with a deal that created a border in the Irish Sea, completing the full house by alienating unionists in Northern Ireland too.

But, with nine months to go before the election in Scotland, Westminster has finally wiped the sleep from its eyes. Just as well, because it will catapult the Union back to the fore of British politics.

The fightback starts with ministerial visits and lots of them. Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove have all been north of the border in recent weeks. The SNP insists that it welcomes the sight of more UK ministers in Scotland, arguing that it pushes wavering voters into the Yes column.

The government must call their bluff. The SNP’s greatest strategic achievement has been using devolution to cast Scotland as inherently separate to the rest of the UK, making independence not just a logical step but crucially a less daunting prospect for uncertain No voters.

While Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are pro-devolution, the SNP are not. Devolution has always been a stepping stone towards independence.

The Scottish government has projected itself as autonomous, developing its own foreign policy through ministerial visits to Brussels, cutting across reserved responsibilities and cultivating its own relationships with allies. For too long UK-wide institutions have played into that narrative: politicians, the civil service and the media.

If Westminster is serious about ensuring the United Kingdom is a coherent, relevant and tangible concept for Scottish voters it must grasp the scale of the challenge ahead of it and change the way it talks about the Union.

Ministers with remits spanning the UK have been too reluctant to project themselves equally across all four nations. The rest have outsourced issues with the “devolved nations” to the overstretched Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices. If ministers are to suddenly rediscover their interest in each nation, they need not just to normalise their visits but to normalise the way they talk about the UK. Clunky, transactional rhetoric about the value of the “precious Union” should be junked for matter-of-fact language that normalises Britishness, with the litmus test that if a minister would not say it in Dudley, they shouldn’t say it in Dundee.

The civil service in London has also been too timid about treading on toes, prioritising good working relationships with colleagues in Cardiff and Edinburgh above the central policy objective of preserving the Union, something our impartial civil service should never be indifferent about. Our cultural institutions have become balkanised, shunting Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish stories to the regional editions while leading UK-wide bulletins with English-only stories that mean little to voters in the rest of the UK.

Opportunities to counter the “otherness” of Westminster are missed by UK politicians, too. Of the dozens of new peers announced this year, only Ruth Davidson and Nigel Dodds were genuine unionist big hitters. No peerage for Carwyn Jones, who spent nearly ten years as first minister of Wales, or concern over Lord Darling’s retirement.

The United Kingdom has almost unrivalled cultural, political and diplomatic tools at its disposal to prevent the disintegration of its own state. It is time it woke-up to the value of those tools. Nationalists won’t be shy about using their own.

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This piece was written for The Times.

London – this is Basingstoke calling

GUEST POST: Tony Freeman is a Freelance Thought-Leadership Consultant specialising in financial technology. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

What many people anticipated has happened. J.P. Morgan, an international bank with 16,000 employees based in the UK – spread across Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Bournemouth and Basingstoke – has made a call on how it will be organised in the post Covid-19 world. Working from home, at least part of the time, is going to be a “more or less permanent” feature of their model. The “rotational model” will see JPM bankers working “one week a month from home, or two days a week from home, or two weeks a month”, depending on the type of business.

I’m a former employee, so perhaps I tend to place too much value on what the bank says. However, I don’t think anyone can deny the firm is a leader with serious heavyweight thinkers at the very top. Who would you prefer to be in The White House – Donald J. Trump or Jamie Dimon?

This news came out on the same day as a BBC report about 50 UK businesses. None – not even one – is planning a full-scale return to pre-pandemic office staffing levels. Simon Jack, BBC Business Editor, called city-centres an “ecosystem” like a coral reef. It’s a good analogy. And he called the situation a cardiac arrest rather than a process of evolution. It’s also being reported that London’s West End is still only operating at 13% of pre Covid-19 lockdown levels. The national level for other cities is 17%. This heart-breaking quote from The Times sums it up: Andrea Oriani wonders if the sandwich bar that he owns in Leadenhall Market will exist come next year. “The City has died,” he said. “We closed in March, thinking it would be a couple of weeks, and didn’t reopen until early July.” In the first week back he took £400. Compare that with a normal £10,000. Last Thursday he took £240 in a day.

I don’t know anyone who expects any sort of return to normality this year. A friend who lives in Kennington says the neighbourhood is busy with people working from home and, in the evening, pubs and restaurants are thriving. Moorgate, just five tube stops away, is empty. Inflexion-point is an over-used phrase, but this is surely where we’re at. Public transport and the catering/ hospitality segments that solely rely on office workers in the City and West End are in a death spiral. Tragically, I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done.

Are there any positives? Well, yes. Discussing the situation with friends who, like me, haven’t set foot in central London for six months we bemoaned the loss of many things. Office banter, gossip, meeting friends from overseas offices etc., we yearn for a sense of community. Working remotely may well be efficient, however, it can also be soulless at times.

I live in Church Crookham, Hampshire. It’s in the Hart district, which is regularly voted as the best place to live in the country. It didn’t earn its reputation because of its restaurant diversity. My neighbours seem to have an unquenchable appetite for either Italian or Indian food. America may run on Dunkin Donuts – around here it’s pizza and chicken tikka masala. The only standout is our excellent Nepalese restaurants – a legacy of the Gurkha Regiment formerly being based here. We don’t have any Japanese, Lebanese or even Mexican restaurants.

So, my passion for exploring new cuisines has in the past been partly sated by the London food-truck scene. At my old office near Liverpool Street station, we were quite spoilt for choice. Thursday night events at Spitalfields Market were enormous fun too. I’ve even watched open-air salsa dancing while eating spicy Argentinian Empanadas and drinking beer brewed in Rotherhithe. You can’t do that on a Zoom call…

I have a suggestion. Perhaps J.P. Morgan could organise a food-truck event in the car park at their office in Basingstoke? If we can’t or won’t go to London, then they must come to us. Family members tell me that Milton Keynes (where 30,000 people are estimated to be WFH instead of commuting) and mill houses in Sheffield would love some food diversity. Looking forward to it.

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This piece was written for our website.

The elephant in the countryside

GUEST POST: Edward Rowlandson is Political Relations Manager at the Countryside Alliance. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

There is a stark contrast in fortunes between the Conservative Party and The Labour Party when it comes to the rural electorate. The Conservatives hold 177 of the 199 rural seats in England and Wales, Labour hold 17. The complete dominance of the Conservative Party has in turn awarded the Party the keys to No.10 in 2015, 2017 and 2019. The Conservatives know how to win in rural seats, whereas Labour has a problem.

The Countryside Alliance’s recent report explores Labour’s relationship with the countryside. The report focuses on Labour’s electoral fortunes in rural England and Wales over the past three general elections. As first recognised by Maria Eagle, Labour MP for Garston and Halewood, after the 2015 election, Labour had (and still has) a rural problem. However, it has been widely ignored by most in The Labour Party.

Labour did not always ignore the rural electorate. When it won the 1997 and 2001 general elections it boasted over 100 rural MPs reaching into the Conservative rural heartlands. At that time, Labour chose to engage with rural voters. However, over time the countryside and Labour have grown further and further apart. Constituency boundaries may have changed, but that cannot hide the situation Labour now finds itself in.

After the 2019 general election much has been made of Labour losing its ‘red wall’, but not much analysis or thought has been given to the complete collapse of Labour’s rural vote – losing 15 seats and going backwards in every rural seat it held. Yet, despite Labour’s worst result in the countryside (and country) since 1935 Labour continued, under Jeremy Corbyn, to prioritise the activities taken in the countryside rather than on the priorities of the countryside. During the Agriculture Bill Committee stages Labour attempted to stop anyone who had used a dog to hunt (including rats) from receiving future agriculture subsidies. Even when drafting problems were highlighted with the junior Shadow Defra Minister, she pressed the amendment to a vote. If it were not for Conservative colleagues in the committee, every farmer would not be entitled to any agricultural subsidy. This was a party that clearly did not understand the countryside nor was it willing to listen to those rural colleagues to the impact that their proposed amendments would cause. Defra Secretary of State, George Eustice, is right when he said: “Nationally, the Conservative Party has always had a much stronger affinity and understanding with rural communities, whether that is agricultural communities, but many others besides who have been farmers themselves and so understand that particular area.” In this instance, Labour’s actions proved the Secretary of State completely right.

However, under Sir Keir Starmer, The Labour Party has been more open to engagement with rural voters, and Luke Pollard, Shadow Defra Minister, wants to make Labour “the party of the countryside” and has even acknowledged Labour’s rural problem: “I think what we need to understand is that the route back to power, the way of winning back many of those communities is to recognise that we need to be there.”

It remains to be seen whether Labour will be able to fulfil their ambitions, however their admission of its rural problem is one that the Conservatives should note. If Labour start to challenge in the countryside Conservatives will have to match that challenge. Ironically the Labour 2019 general election strategy of targeting only urban seats worked – it now holds most of them. Therefore, the sooner it closes the gap in the countryside the closer it gets to No.10. The task for the Conservative Party is to maintain its dominance – currently at 89%. To do that the Conservatives have to show the rural electorate why they were right to put their trust in them. Polling from ORB International found that issues most important to the rural electorate are housing, healthcare and transport. These issues are the ones that need to be addressed; and will ultimately secure the Conservative Party continued success both in the countryside and in the country.  

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This piece was written for our website.

Extinction Rebellion’s virtue-signalling hypocrisy undermines climate crisis cause

GUEST POST: Stephen Lynch is a PR and Public Affairs Consultant, and former Press Adviser to The Conservative Party. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Extinction Rebellion are now censoring the press in their pursuit of halting mass extinction. It’s also a peculiar time to stretch the precious resources of the emergency services, and deprive family newsagents of income during the prolonged menace of Covid-19. 

Former Labour ministers reckon that XR’s latest stunt comes out of the fascistic authoritarian regime playbook. Days after attacking the free press and its freedom to publish, the group’s latest email has the chutzpah to praise the “freedom to speak truth to power” as a hallmark of a “healthy democracy”.

Ironically, XR prevented readers of The Sun newspaper this weekend from hearing Sir David Attenborough’s thoughts about how to tackle the climate crisis. The mission of tackling the climate crisis needs those who can build alliances, not alienate them.

XR risks being irrevocably labelled as a left-wing, anarchist group of affluent activists more concerned with parading their morality on social media than effectively dealing with the complexity of the climate crisis. They face being officially classified as an organised crime organisation, with all the invasive surveillance that entails. Their blockades of printworks risk damaging the very cause the group is supposed to be supporting.

XR’s website says their struggle is not about left or right, yet they targeted every right-of-centre newspaper in their salvo against the “crooked billionaire press”. Their literature claims that XR avoids “blaming and shaming” any one individual, yet their recent emails attack Rupert Murdoch and “corrupt media moguls and dodgy politicians.”

XR misleadingly pushes the illogical notion to their followers that the UK government is sanguine about, or otherwise deliberately accelerating climate change. 

Prior to Covid-19 and after leaving the EU, achieving net zero became one of the government’s two overarching priorities, along with “levelling up” the nations and regions. Last year, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law ending its contribution to global warming by 2050; the UK has decarbonised faster than any other G20 country; it is the world’s biggest producer of offshore wind energy; it has cut emissions by 42 per cent since 1990.

There is always more to do, and few in Whitehall or in industry are complacent about sustainability.

Next November, 30,000 delegates, including heads of state and climate experts, will gather in Glasgow to agree coordinated international action for tackling the climate crisis at COP26. 

It will be the first time that the UK has taken on the presidency of this UN conference, and our government will want to lead the gathering with a powerful pledge and a message to other countries that it is time to step up.

The international community also hopes we will lead with a strong commitment on our own emissions so we will have credibility in encouraging other countries to follow suit.

The Met Office’s State of the Climate report this summer illustrates that over the last decade, summers and winters have been around 12 per cent wetter. Four new high-temperature records were registered in 2019, including the highest UK temperature.

Despite the UK’s achievements, there is a compelling case for action, especially as global carbon emissions have more than doubled since 1971. The question is how best can we make a genuine difference on this planet?  

China is responsible for more than one-quarter of all global carbon emissions, and along with the United States, India, Russia and Japan, the biggest polluters account for over half of all emissions.

This seems like a good place to start if you are serious about creating change.

The delayed COP26 also gives XR the opportunity to potentially influence a new administration in Washington, and one that would be more committed to the Paris Agreement at that.

Joe Biden has pledged to integrate climate change fully into US policy on trade and foreign affairs. A stronger believer in alliances, if he is elected president, he could also opt to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the UK to form the world’s greatest trading bloc, where the environment is an integral aspect, not an optional add-on.

XR should form partnerships with NGOs in these highest-emitting countries and seek to influence in a more convincing, mature, and legal way.

The global spotlight on Glasgow will help focus delegates’ attention, laser-like, on the task at hand.  

XR’s first demand is for the media and politicians to “tell the truth” about the global ecological emergency. Dale Carnegie’s best-selling books on persuasion do not recommend starting a negotiation by publicly questioning the other side’s honesty and integrity.  

XR can engage more effectively and professionally with the proceedings – coffees, meeting agendas and informed discussion rather than handcuffs, tantrums and disruption motivated by self-appointed moral superiority. Lobbying is making the right argument, to the right person, at the right time. XR can make a strategic shift away from civil disobedience and towards civil engagement and debate in Glasgow, Scotland’s Dear Green Place, next year.

Protest can put critical issues on the agenda, but you need lawmakers and policies to make the change. We have the means to act. The UK is in prime position to coordinate, cajole and enable the substantial political will required. We can begin to finally turn the tide against decades of complacency, for which there may be an awfully high cost.

XR can be a help, not a hindrance in a long campaign that will ultimately be won with advanced diplomacy, persuasion and technology – not by casting aspersions on the intelligence of the people whose support you need, or on the motives of the people who will legislate the change.

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This piece was written for The Independent.