Singapore-on-Thames: why is this a bad idea?

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

Shortly after the 2016 EU referendum, I visited Singapore to meet-up with clients and colleagues in my role as Brexit policy manager for a large US-headquartered global financial services firm. I offered to deliver a briefing for the local team and was greeted with a response that was to become remarkably familiar as I visited other office locations in Indo-Pacific and the Americas. Incredulity is the best word to describe their viewpoint, which was driven by two factors: very slanted local media reporting and a lack of understanding about what the EU is (and wants to be).

I’m a typical Tory – meaning I’m a long-term Eurosceptic. We joined an economic community but were being increasingly drawn into a political superstate. I’m a free marketeer who wants global trade to flourish. A rising tide really does lift all boats! Where I’m less typical, I suppose, is that while I’m no fan of the Customs Union I am very much in favour of the Single Market.  

My experience of dealing with Brussels over many years of working on financial services regulation led me to believe the UK would be better off out the EU. When you see how the sausages are made you can’t help but think about becoming a vegetarian … Despite this, I was surprised by the result and very apprehensive about how the exit process would work. (It turned out to be worse than I thought, however that’s for another day.) 

Back to Singapore. Anticipating their puzzlement about why the UK had gone mad, I did some homework on the astonishing success of its economy. When Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 it was a very undeveloped country. Its population was estimated to be 50% illiterate, malaria was rife and its GDP per capita was only US$516. It has almost no natural resources – it must import water and sand from its near neighbours. So, going it alone was a very brave move indeed.  

However, by 2018 Singapore’s GDP per capita had reached US$87k – higher than the US. For comparison, Ghana – another former British colony – took its GDP per-head from US$974 in 1970 to a meagre US$2,200 in 2018. This is despite being richly endowed in natural resources: its colonial name was The Gold Coast! The decision by the UK to leave the EU was, by comparison, a more modest change. 

So, why do many people seem to think that using Singapore as a model is a bad idea? The concept appears to be that Singapore is a low-regulation country. This is a misconception. My experience, based on dealing with financial regulators, is that Singaporean regulators and policy-makers do not fit any sort of stereotype. They do not have any hesitation to do what is appropriate for their market and they have a very business-orientated approach.

A key part of any policy is that it should enable growth. Conversations with regulators very often revolve around what you are not allowed to do. In Singapore, it’s all about encouraging you to do more – and to do it in Singapore. This isn’t de-regulation. Singapore now has many advantages: low taxes, stable politics, a robust legal system and zero tolerance of corruption. And alongside these: a strong regulatory system is also a cornerstone; it attracts business. 

The phrase ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ appears to have been coined by the media with its origins in the fears and prejudices of politicians in the EU. The UK won’t become another Singapore, however that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from its success. I hope we do. 

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This piece was written for our website. 

When blame’s not a game

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

As the Prime Minister held a sombre press conference last night to mark the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths in the UK, he might have thought back to when he stood at the Downing Street podium all the way back on 12 March last year – two weeks before the first lockdown – and delivered the stark warning that: “I must level with you, level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Few could have imagined at the time quite how many more families that warning would sadly become a reality for.

How the Prime Minister’s claim yesterday that ‘we did all we could’ is viewed will depend entirely on existing perceptions of the government and its performance. It will variously be interpreted as a plaintive insistence that the government has worked in good faith to tackle a once-in-a-century crisis, as an admission that the government’s best was simply not good enough, or as an attempt to counter blame by insisting that nothing more could have been done by any government.

Throughout the pandemic, blame has never been too far from the surface of the political debate. Responding to the death toll, Labour said yesterday that ‘monumental mistakes’ have been made and at Prime Minister’s Questions today Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pushed the Prime Minister on the UK’s death toll, asking repeatedly: ‘why?’.

The list of things the government has been accused of getting wrong is a familiar one: being too slow to lockdown, slow off the mark in ensuring the provision of PPE, confused on its messaging on masks, failing to protect social care, stuttering in its initial ramp up of testing, cumbersome in establishing a test, trace and isolate system, too quick to attempt to return the economy to normality over the summer, forced to U-turn over the ill-fated exam results algorithm, too slow to implement a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in the autumn, overpromising on the easing of restrictions over Christmas, too slow to enter the current lockdown, and insisting schools return for the new term before closing them. Critics of the government, business groups, trade unions and sector bodies will all have their own to add to that list.

How and when to apportion blame has been part of the politics of the pandemic from the start, with Labour leader Keir Starmer accusing the Prime Minister of wishing away problems rather than confronting them early enough and the Prime Minister portraying Starmer as ‘Captain Hindsight’, wanting to score political points rather than pulling together, backing the government’s efforts and waiting until the pandemic is over before learning lessons from it.

That attempt to defer blame until the end of the pandemic makes both political and practical sense for the government while overstretched ministers, officials and public health workers are flat out dealing with both the effects of the current wave of the pandemic and the mass-roll out of the vaccines that will get us out of it.

But the often talked about public inquiry that will come when the dust settles and normal life returns will not produce a standalone cathartic moment that neatly assigns blame and allows the country to move on with one shared view of what it has collectively been through.

Public inquiries take time. They are laborious and forensic, as the ongoing Grenfell Tower and the Infected Blood Inquires – both opened in 2017 – and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – launched even earlier – have all demonstrated. Often the time-consuming, legalistic and methodical nature of inquiries causes frustration and further pain to those who want answers. The future inquiry into how Covid-19 was handled will no doubt face similar challenges.

And in any case, public inquiries are very different from public opinion, which unlike political blame is far from black and white. It is subjective, reflecting existing political views, different personal experiences, and perceptions of individual leaders. But it can also recognise different narratives as being true at the same time, such as the UK being among the worst in the world for Covid-19 deaths and among the best in the world for not just distributing but discovering the vaccines that provide an escape from the last year.

How blame is formally apportioned during any inquiry, how politicians attempt to assign or avoid it, and how the public view both will be a central part of British politics for many years as the long legacy of the pandemic remains with us.

At the heart of maintaining public confidence that lessons are learned – whoever and whatever deserves blame – will be ensuring that at the centre of it all are those families – many more even than the Prime Minister warned last March – who did go on to lose loved ones before their time.

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This piece was written for the SEC Newsgate blog.

Joe Biden is good for the UK

GUEST POST: Patrick Adams is a political consultant. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

Last Saturday, Boris Johnson was the first European leader to receive a call from the 46th US President Joseph R. Biden Jr (Joe Biden for short). According to the transcripts and tweets – driving “a green and sustainable recovery from Covid-19” are top of the agenda for these two gentlemen.

What I have set out below – regardless of who you thought would or wanted to win the election – is that – despite the choreographed blonde hair and populist tendencies – New York-born Mr Johnson has more in common with Mr Biden than his predecessor and fellow New Yorker Donald J. Trump. That is because, at heart, he’s a liberal conservative.

This year, the UK will host both the G7 Summit in Cornwall and the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow and that presents No10 and the White House with a golden opportunity to ‘build back better’, together, and thus strengthen the longstanding alliance between these nations.

As highlighted, Mr Biden and Mr Johnson are keen on driving the ‘green agenda’. With COP26 taking place in November, now is the time for bold initiatives and nothing screams bold than Mr Biden signing an executive order to re-join the Paris Climate Accord the day after his inauguration. The British Government has already made several commitments related to greener energy (and is bound by the accord in the EU-UK trade agreement) and is making steady progress across several areas.  

For example, the UK has prioritised investment in wind energy in its attempt to become the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind power’. Further to this, the UK is committed to banning the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035 – actions the new US administration will likely support.

It appears the President’s first foreign trip will be to the UK rather than an EU27 member state. Whether that’s due to the pandemic or a deliberate move, reports suggest Mr Biden wants to move past any disagreements and start afresh with Mr Johnson and Mr Johnson is no doubt only too happy to hear that.

On China, the US and UK seek to curtail its growing influence and to highlight human rights abuses. Specifically, the UK has imposed harsh sanctions on China as opposed to the mixed response from the EU. The recent China-EU investment agreement, approved by the Council, may be an issue for EU-US relations. Similarly, the Nord Stream Gas pipeline between Russia and Germany will increase divisions for the alliance. As such, the EU risks alienating the US by the company that it keeps.

Defence is another area where the Biden administration will have differences of opinion with some Europeans. President Trump insisted that all NATO member states meet their two per cent defence spending requirements. This issue will not disappear with another president and Mr Biden will likely lobby for an increase in spending, albeit in a much more diplomatic way.

The UK, on the other hand, has already taken the lead on this issue and will be an ally to the US. Firstly, it is one of the few NATO members that meet its spending requirements. Secondly, the UK has increased defence spending by a further £16.5 billion.

There is rarely such a thing as friendly nations, but generally only nations with mutual interests. The UK and US have many mutual interests other than the above topics, and it will be for the President and the Prime Minister to build on them. I’m optimistic.

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This piece was written for our website. 

2021 local elections – to be or not to be?

GUEST POST: Joshua Woolliscroft is an Account Manager at MPC. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

For amateur and professional psephologists alike, this year’s local elections – if they go ahead – look set to be more exciting than usual. Not only is this the first electoral clash between the Prime Minister and Sir Keir Starmer, it is also a double batch with the 2020 cancelled contests rolled into one.

The big question is has the Government’s handling of the pandemic had an impact on its overall popularity? And, perhaps more crucially, will the successful roll out of the vaccine and the signing of the Brexit trade deal give Boris Johnson a surprise bounce?

Looking back at 2016 and 2017 – when these elections last took place – you see two very different pictures. 2016 was the swan song of David Cameron’s premiership, his last tilt at the polls ahead of the EU referendum. The election saw a swing against the Conservatives, leading to the loss of 50 councillors and one council. Conversely, in 2017, Theresa May took 11 councils; skewering UKIP on the right and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour on the left.

Although a notoriously inaccurate indication of local voting intention, the polls are stubbornly tied with the Government and HM Opposition jockeying for a one-point lead. CCHQ may be hoping for a repeat of 2016, where Labour squeaked a narrow lead with very little to show for it. While the launch of the Reform Party could chip away at vulnerable authorities, no one – except for Nigel Farage – is expecting a serious challenge from them right now.

Assuming the roll out of the vaccine remains on track throughout Winter and into Spring, the electorate may, just might, vote Conservative. Equally, delays or a perception of mismanagement could lead to a vengeful public seeing Labour as a slightly safer choice.

It is often said that the electorate is capable of anger, but rarely gratitude. A good day for the Prime Minister should be one the pundits barely notice, shaving a few councils and retaining most mayoralties. There has been a lot of talk about momentum in British politics. An average to fair result for the Tories in May (or later) could sap some much needed energy from Labour.

Hard as it is to believe, the first rays of a post Covid-19 morning could be on the horizon. If the Government wants to be re-elected in 2024, they need to seize the initiative of that new dawn. Avoiding a disaster this year should be the first step in the right direction.

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This piece was written for our website. 

Why doesn’t the BBC give reporters a by-line?

GUEST POST: Mo Metcalf-Fisher is Head of Press at the Countryside Alliance. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

It’s easy to get frustrated, but after a few months on the job you quickly get used to it. The main reason for this is that you learn the quickest and easiest way of addressing a problem with a news item is to liaise directly with the author of the piece.More often than not, issues can be resolved amicably and professionally.

At all levels of news output, from local to national, the ability to speak with a specific journalist about their story is incredibly important.

I am not talking about articles you simply don’t like, of course, but items that are genuinely badly written, factually incorrect or lacking in balance. Sometimes, even, the absence of a basic right of reply.

Obviously, depending on the severity of a grievance, press officers may have no other option than to immediately escalate their complaint to the highest levels. In most cases (certainly from personal experience), a basic acknowledgment is often provided promptly.

More often than not, though, the preference is to keep it between the two parties without involving editors or, in the most severe cases, IPSO or Ofcom.

Thankfully, in most cases, online news websites make the process of identifying a journalist incredibly easy.

Their name is often placed at the top of an article with a link to their portfolio.

Frustratingly, I have often found this sensible process not to be applicable in the case of the BBC – specifically, its news site.

Most BBC articles lack any mention of an author, which makes the process of complaints incredibly hard to follow, should it be required.

It is difficult to know exactly who to complain to and, in the real world where minutes count for hours, press offices cannot wait for days to hear back from a centralised complaints department.

If there had been no attempt to make contact with your press office in the first instance, it is almost impossible to know how to identify the reporter behind a piece.

When I have been afforded the opportunity of working with a BBC reporter, I have found them to be courteous and professional.

However, this can be overshadowed by a frustration – which I know many in the PR industry share – about the lack of author transparency.

If the BBC is to enjoy the confidence of press offices, it must ensure that its reporters are accountable for their own work and easily identified.

I see no reason why this cannot be the case, given that every other significant news outlet does so already.

The BBC should promptly follow suit.

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This piece was written for PR Week

Publishers are investing in print

GUEST POST: Owen Meredith is CEO of the Professional Publishers Association (PPA). Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

How challenging is your new role of CEO of the PPA

It’s been a really interesting and exciting time to take it on. We all know the challenges every business has faced through Covid-19, particularly publishers, but I’m excited to have the opportunity to support people through the recovery. There’s light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine rollout, and we’re making sure that our members have the tools in their armoury to take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way so they can rebuild and grow their businesses back. 

What are the current top concerns of your members? 

One of the main concerns is changes in the advertising market. Since the early weeks of the pandemic, the advertising market has come back with some strength, particularly digital, which is performing better than forecast. But for print, the forward-booking advertising market has been really challenging because we still need to build long term confidence. We’ve also seen strengths around print subscriptions, where people are looking for time away from a screen, and there’s some opportunity there for both publishers and advertisers.

Are publishers throwing a lot of weight behind their print versions? 

Through the crisis, some  publishers temporarily moved out of print because of changes at retail due to Covid-19 restrictions. Also, B2B publishers, who were sending print copies to workplaces, were suddenly not reaching their audiences in the same way and they had to adapt.

In the consumer market people have turned to print as a form of escapism and a way to indulge their interests and passions. Here publishers are investing in print, investing in pagination and paper quality. I’m sure we will see more of that as people crave more time away from screens. 

How important is print’s sustainability to publishers? 

Print is a highly sustainable product and our members are very committed to the sustainability agenda.

At the PPA we have a Sustainability Action Group that looks at how we can improve our carbon footprint and commitment to ecology, so print is definitely here for the long term. If you look at the way publishers have changed, how they deliver their print products in terms of paper wrapping and other alternatives to plastic, there is a sustainability agenda that print can support.

What events do you have planned for 2021? 

The PPA Festival in May is one of our most important events. I think realistically we are not going to be able to hold a face-to-face event of the scale of previous festivals, but we are looking at creative ways to provide networking opportunities, insight and content to members and the industry. At the end of June, we have our PPA Awards, and we are optimistic that we can do a face-to-face event where we can celebrate the industry and – hopefully – the economy and life returning to normal.    

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This piece was written for The Page.

The consequences of ‘gagging’ Trump

GUEST POST: Mario Creatura is Head of Strategic and Digital Communications at Virgin Money. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Late on Wednesday evening Facebook chose to ban President Trump from their platform and Instagram indefinitely, but at least for the duration of his presidency.

Twitter temporarily froze his account, but then took the more drastic decision of banning him permanently on Friday. Given his words directly led to the violence on Capitol Hill, who could blame them for taking this potentially preventative action?

While social media companies have for some time now been encouraged to remove accounts perceived to be harmful or criminal, this is nevertheless a watershed moment for the core definition of these organisations – one that will shape the role they and regulators play in curating our digital world.

This could not be more important. It all centres round the ongoing debate about whether social media companies are ‘publishers’ (with an editorial policy akin to a traditional newspaper) or ‘platforms’ (where they act as the passive host through which any and all content can be shared).

For years now they have maintained the façade that they are platforms – in short that they are not to blame for much of the biased, twisted material that’s shared through their tool. But if they are making choices about who to ban, what content is permissible, and what action is justified in the policing of their sites then their argument quickly deteriorates to the point of ridiculousness.

This is not a semantic, academic debate for media lawyers. In late November last year, Prince Harry sued the publishers of The Mail on Sunday over a story claiming that he has fallen out of touch with the Royal Marines. If Facebook is a platform, then they are broadly protected from similar lawsuits. If they are acknowledged to be a publisher then this totally changes the ballgame and leaves them open to such libel actions as well and could remove them from the protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The banning of President Trump from social platforms will likely have a huge impact on clarifying this debate. Social media companies are undeniably taking an editorial stance, one that many will agree with in this instance. But once that premise is accepted, how can we object to future judgements that we are less keen on?

Too little, too late?

In this very specific situation, what will the impact of Facebook and Twitter’s decision be on Trump’s advocates?

His removal from these platforms takes away his primary means of communicating to some of his increasingly aggressive base of supporters. One possibility is that over time this ban will hurt him and his populist philosophy by making him seem unconnected and ineffective. They could think: ‘If Twitter can silence the great Trump, is he really the all powerful leader we think he is?’

The alternative, far more dangerous path is that it will yet further embolden his fanatics. A scenario that paints the elite, wealthy techno giants as being in hock to the out-of-touch Democrats; claiming they are so terrified by Trump speaking the truth that the will do anything to silence him. ‘They stole the election, now they’re trying to gag him!’ In this version of events, where do these people go? Do they continue to spout their views on mainstream channels, without an obvious leader to corral them?

The editorial decisions made by social media companies could quite feasibly create a digital Hydra – they can try to cut off the head, but many will grow in its place, spawning yet more leaders of hyper-partisan, totally populist campaigners to accompany his already large following of loyal lieutenants.

After all, it’s simply too late to now be punishing Trump by removing his bully pulpit. He’s on his way out and frankly the damage has been done. And he’s not done it alone, dozens of his Senators, Congressmen, political staffers and loyal media outlets have stoked the rhetoric that led to the violence in DC. It has already spread too far for it to be halted by simply banning Trump.

What’s next?

While Trump’s gagging on social channels sends a clear signal that tech giants are taking their curating role seriously, it needs to be more than a Democrat-wooing PR-exercise. Personal responsibility needs to be taken urgently among our lawmakers and the press to self-regulate the content that they all individually publish, whether or not digital companies are finally identified as publishers. We simply cannot wait yet more years for this debate to play out or for social media companies to regulate free expression retrospectively.

For one: it will cause resentment of the social channels from the perceived oppressed side of the deal. If Trump is censored by Twitter, then Trump supporters will turn their guns on to Twitter.

For another: social media companies are significantly more adept at adapting to the shifting needs of the digital sphere. There is already fear that any attempt by legislators to regulate social media will be out-dated and irrelevant by the time the lengthy legislative process is complete.

Whose job is it to police the digital police if they exist beyond traditional borders with little knowledgeable accountability?

The decision to ban Trump has already unleashed waves of criticism – some arguing that it’s an attack on free speech, others that it’s a more serious assault on democratic institutions. That pales into insignificance when compared to the mass of calls for an entirely reasonable principle: fairness. Many are calling for Twitter to ban Ayatollah Khamenei for the same reasons as Trump – will social media companies be able to operate their content moderation policies consistently?

It took Twitter three days to remove a post from a Chinese Embassy trying to spin justifications for their Uyghur genocide – do they have the capacity to apply them fairly? The pressure on them to be consistent, in speed and judgement, will grow and grow exponentially.

Trump may have led the creation of the ripe environment for sedition, but many agents played their part in advancing it. Obfuscating social media companies, slow legislators, and partisan communicators all must share in the blame for last Wednesday’s violence.

For that accountability to happen, influencers need to get to grips with their responsibility to consider the consequences of their personal content and for us all to understand the true role of the social media giants.

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This piece was written for Influence.

Tinker, tailor: Communicating the levelling-up agenda

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher 

In trying to win the ear of the UK government, many organisations claim that their work contributes to the levelling-up agenda. Perhaps they are right. However, little attention is paid to what is possibly the most important nuance of all, which is that the levelling-up agenda can mean very different things to different parliamentarians.

Levelling-up isn’t a straightforward ‘policy’ in the traditional sense. Nor can it be determined by any one single metric or piece of legislation. Rather, levelling-up is more of a catch-all term that embodies a complex set of institutional, fiscal and social reforms that together form a broad ambition for the government.  

It is important that organisations realise – as the levelling-up tsar himself, Neil O’Brien MP, said – the measure of levelling-up will be very different across the country. For example, in Devon and the South West access to high-speed broadband might be the most important measure of levelling-up, while in the West Midlands and North East better transport infrastructure may be the key indicator. 

Parliamentarians are aware of the issues their constituencies care about, and what the measure of levelling-up looks like to them, and organisations would do well to recognise and approach this in three ways.

Firstly, always think local. It’s widely accepted that the success of levelling-up will be measured in smaller areas, not big regions. O’Brien says “we aren’t just interested in the difference between, say, Yorkshire and London, but in the differences within them. Places with problems can be right next to places that are booming.” When communicating with parliamentarians and with government, the more localised you can be, the more likely your argument will land.  

Secondly, lead with figures. Dominic Cummings and his allies may have left Number 10, but this government continues to be driven by the data. Local statistics and evidence are not only helpful. but they are essential when making your case. With the added pressures of the pandemic, government and parliamentarians are turning to organisations to provide evidence-based solutions and policy ideas.  

Lastly, focus on the long game. The 2019 Spending Round made clear and the forthcoming Budget is likely to reiterate that this government is committed to a longer-term strategy when it talks of levelling-up across the whole country. Naturally, there are some things that can be delivered quicker than others, such as building new school and repairing roads. However, levelling-up should be perceived in the context of a longer-term ambition to improve our economic resilience and restore our cultural and social fabric.

To conclude, when communicating the levelling-up agenda to government, organisations would do well to remember the simple adage, “you can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

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This piece was written for our website. 

Populism isn’t dead — it’s alive and well

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, Co-Chair of the PRCA Corporate Group and Founder & Director at do Different. He is a former National Executive Officer of Conservative Future (Young Conservatives)

This week, President Trump ended former President Obama’s 12-year run as the ‘most admired man in America’ (according to the annual Gallup survey). The recognition — which I’m confident was joyfully received in Mar-a-Lago — is hardly a surprise, given that sitting US Presidents have been awarded the title by the pollster 60 out of 74 years. With that said, Trump also won the most votes of any sitting President in history in 2020 (74m to 66m for Obama back in 2012), as well as more counties than his opponent, so several statistics would support it.

However, what good is that when the President lost the Electoral College? Judging by the circumstances that we now find ourselves in, the show is over for Trumpism. But is it really? Here, I share some facts and thoughts about what is next for populism, both across the pond and closer to home.

The reality is — that despite one of the lowest-energy national campaigns to date — Joe Biden somehow achieved 306 Electoral College votes to President Trump’s 232 and on January 20, 2021, will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States.

Despite all the lawsuits, re-counts and endless chatter on social media, no concrete evidence of fraud came to light to overturn the outcome. In addition, Biden will have a small majority in the House, with 222 Democrats to 210 Republican Congressmen and women. The picture is less clear in the upper chamber. Right now, the Republicans have 50 Senators to 48 Democrats — therefore, the result of the run-off Georgia elections next week carries tremendous weight on both sides of the divide.

If the GOP and indeed President Trump want to protect his legacy and be in with a chance of holding the Senate, as well as winning the 2022 mid-terms and 2024 Presidential race — and most Republican voters do not want the ‘America First’ policy to be put back in the bottle — they must look forward, and fast. Both components — the campaign and the party — should work together and sing from the same hymn sheet, e.g. on the $2,000 stimulus check, to help re-elect Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler on Tuesday, January 5.

That means encouraging early voter turnout, as Donald Trump Jr. and others are doing, as well as sharing a platform, like the rally scheduled in Atlanta on the preceding day. It’s unclear whether this will be too late to have an impact. The same could be said of another, but broader, rally planned for Washington, DC, on the following day, January 6.

Whatever the outcome is, President Trump acts as a reminder that a significant portion of Americans do not share the liberal elite’s woke outlook and that populism is not dead.

In the wake of Brexit and a trade deal between the UK and EU, populism may even rise — although the process itself was frustrating, it won’t stop other European parties from campaigning for their countries to follow suit. Who knows — Flanders, Italy and others could do things differently in 2021 by electing populist governments that are committed to putting their countries and their people first. Who could blame them?

I hope President Trump’s pragmatic approach to US foreign policy — which, on balance, has proven far less warmongering and therefore less destructive than that of Clinton, Bush or indeed Obama — will continue under the new President. Unfortunately, though, I doubt it. The same pessimism goes for US-UK relations. Biden seems in no mood to prioritise a new trade deal with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

President-Elect Biden is almost certainly not going to wage war against the social justice warriors who voted for him, including those on the campus battlefield, where — as Charlie Kirk sums it up perfectly — “Free speech, intellectually rigorous debate, and the simple concepts of tolerance and fairness are routinely being corrupted and weaponised to promote radical leftist ideologies, enforce groupthink, and marginalise or eliminate any student, professor, and dean who gets in their way.”

At least in England, there is a growing number of MPs who are talking sense on censorship and conservatism, and there are activists who are ready to get involved.

I don’t believe we’ve seen the finale of Trumpism, or indeed populism itself. In fact, I believe they are likely to grow and will be projected by a generation of patriots, including Madison Cawthorn and Matt Gaetz. Watch this space, folks.

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This piece was written for Turning Point UK, a student movement for free markets, limited government, personal responsibility and duty to others. Its sister is Turning Point USA. It was republised by Politicalite (‘Trumpism and Populism Aren’t Dead — They’re Alive and Well’ — January 2, 2021).

Boris must find the bandwidth to take on Sturgeon

GUEST POST: Eliot Wilson is Co-Founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons ClerkFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Being prime minister is not an easy job. Whether you adopt the approach of Thatcher’s four-hours-a-night, or Macmillan’s retreating to Trollope novels at moments of extreme stress, it is a position which occupies your every waking (and probably many a sleeping) moment; the situation is not helped by the fact that the vast majority of prime ministers live ‘above the shop’ in the apartment complex of 10-11 Downing Street. Time to think can be at a premium.

Boris Johnson is certainly not short of challenges to which he could devote his brain power.

Covid and Brexit are the two most obvious and pressing matters, but one could easily add the “levelling-up” agenda, HS2, the grievous state of the hospitality industry, repayment of the national debt, the examination system in schools, NHS shortages and law and order, and that would be the in-tray only half full.

Being leader of the opposition is a very different matter. The effective levers in your hands are virtually none, especially when you face a government with a healthy parliamentary majority early in the electoral cycle, and if you are not to be wholly reactive (“We think the government should have gone further…”) then thinking is one of the few things to which you can devote a lot of time.

Just before Christmas, Sir Keir Starmer made a “major” speech on devolution and the Union. 

This is the sort of parlour game into which opposition leaders are forced; those who occupy the territory willingly are political oddballs and often Liberal Democrats. The content of the speech promised a commission to examine the devolution of power, advised by former prime minister Gordon Brown.

While this is not a move which will capture the imagination on voters’ doorsteps, it is a sensible and grown-up response to the persistent popularity of the SNP in Scotland and the inexplicable perception that the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has handled the Covid crisis well.

A recent poll showed support for Scotland’s secession from the Union at 58%, which would be a comfortable plurality at a referendum. 

This is literally an existential threat to the UK: from a business point of view, secession would mean the United Kingdom losing the human capital of 5.5 million people, access to the oil and gas reserves of the North Sea, an enormous potential source of tidal and wind energy and the huge financial services sector in Edinburgh, apart from anything else. It is by no means unrealistic to imagine an independent Scotland by 2030: the government must address this.

What must worry unionists is that Boris Johnson, personally and institutionally, simply does not have the bandwidth to take the fight to the nationalists at the present time. It is often suggested that Johnson, for all his mixed heritage an ineffably English figure, is ill-suited to woo a truculent Scottish electorate.

But if not him, then who? The Labour Party lost its relevance in Scottish politics with its Westminster annihilation in 2015, and its Holyrood leader, Richard Leonard, is the sort of man who is forgettable to his own memory foam mattress. The Liberal Democrats are a harmless fringe. Faute de mieux, the battle for the Union must be an SNP/ Conservative fight.

But who is going to stand in the front line? The Scottish secretary, Alister Jack, is a landowner who looks like a refugee from a late-stage Macmillan cabinet; Baroness Davidson (as she will become) is a proven vote-winner but is only standing in at Holyrood until next May; the Scottish leader, Douglas Ross, is accident-prone and yet to find an authentic voice which resonates with the electorate north of the border.

The prime minister needs help. He needs some heavyweight unionist figures (who need not necessarily be Conservatives); he needs an ultra-smooth and highly responsive media team; and he needs some enormous brains to sit in darkened rooms and find the arguments against secession which will strike a chord with the voters.

The second and third categories should not be impossible to satisfy. The first, the cheerleaders, may prove more difficult. If anyone has any ideas, the address is 10 Downing Street, London SW1A.

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

This piece was written for City AM.

Boris has won the Brexit war, now he has to win the peace

GUEST POST: Sir Robbie Gibb is Senior Advisor at Kekst CNC and former Director of Communications at No.10 Downing Street. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

A little over a year ago, Boris Johnson went into the general election promising the British public: “Back me and I will get Brexit done.” They did and he has. This momentous deal not only marks a new chapter in Britain’s history but will rightly stand as a historic triumph for a Prime Minister who has all too often been misunderstood and maligned.

We were told by critics it was impossible to get a deal of this magnitude done in this time frame, that the Government could not represent Britain’s best interests in Brussels while simultaneously battling Covid-19 at home, that there would not be enough time to negotiate new trade deals with other nations while fighting on these two major fronts.

We were even told that Britain would be putting its citizens at risk by not being a part of EU efforts to find a vaccine against the deadly virus.

Yet here we are.

We have a zero tariff deal that restores our sovereign rights in full. We will no longer have to align with EU rules nor will we be subject to the European Court of Justice.

Our Parliament will be free to set its own laws, we will no longer have to pay into the EU coffers and we can set our own immigration policy.

We have signed 61 trade deals with other countries and Britain leads the world in its vaccination programme – with 600,000 people already receiving their first jab by Christmas. Not bad for a Prime Minister who critics claim lacks an eye for detail and is indecisive.

He has led his nation through the unprecedented dual challenge of battling a pandemic while seeking to break free from the orbit of Brussels.

While Brexit prematurely ended David Cameron’s premiership and destroyed Theresa May’s, Mr Johnson has held his nerve and delivered, just as he said he would, for the country.

Sir Keir Starmer has instructed his Labour MPs to back the deal when it comes before Parliament next week and there are signs that all but the most diehard Brexiteers will support it too.

Mr Johnson has shown why the British people continue to keep their faith in him and why the polls have held up so well for the Government.

No one understood better than him why the public voted for Brexit and why it was vital not to sell the nation short to secure a deal.

But in his heart, the Prime Minister is a man who wants to unite not divide.

For of all the myths about him there is none greater than that which seeks to portray him as a leader who revels in controversy and division – the very opposite is the case. That is what his levelling-up agenda is all about – uniting our country by ensuring that no one feels left behind as we forge our own future outside the EU.

We should be under no illusions about the challenges ahead. Covid has decimated our economy, leaving hundreds of thousands out of work.

The vaccination programme may well free us from our current captivity but for millions this has felt like the darkest week of the longest year.

Two highly infectious super-strains have forced another lockdown in all but name for vast swathes of the country and we have all felt the pain of being kept apart from loved ones this Christmas. But there is, finally, hope that Britain may well be turning a corner in this battle.

Alongside the Pfizer vaccine a second, made by scientists at Oxford University, is expected to get the green light in the coming days.

And there are currently no signs that these mutated versions of the virus will be resistant to our vaccines.

Having achieved with Brexit what many thought was impossible, the Prime Minister now faces another set of seemingly impossible challenges – to free Britain from the grip of Covid, to rebuild our shattered economy and to bring prosperity to every region of the country.

He also needs to heal the divisions that opened up around Brexit and unite a country that has been at war with itself for too long.

Mr Johnson has four years before the next election to get Britain back on its feet and to unite the country. It would be an unwise man who would bet against him succeeding.

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

This piece was written for The Telegraph.

2021: A review

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, spoke to Matt Honeycombe-Foster at POLITICO about the future of the industry. The image below includes the comments that were used for his article, otherwise you’ll find the full transcript as a blog post.

Do you predict public affairs/comms industry will carry on with bits of the ‘new normal’ even as Covid comes under control?

Much of what’s taken place over the past nine months has been in the works for a while e.g., living healthier, working remotely, shopping online, leveraging technology and thinking digital.  

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, sea change or paradigm shift.  

Even now that we have vaccines, 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.

That aside, we’re a people industry – our successes are built on networking and relationships; we absolutely need that face-to-face time. That’s certainly true for new start-ups like do Different.

I cannot wait to be able to host in-person events for the PRCA Corporate Group and Conservatives in Communications again soon. Zoom fatigue has certainly crept in.

What were the big lessons of 2020 that are likely to stick?  

1) Trust in your people and partners and ignore all talk of presenteeism.

The key to making remote working work is for managers to trust their colleagues. In turn, all colleagues must deliver – at home and in the office. It’s really that simple. Get it right and the benefits can be a-plenty.

And, I believe people have got it right. They have risen to the challenges posed by the country’s response to the pandemic.  

2) Corporate reputation remains king.

While some functions in communications rise and fall in terms of where they are in the pecking order, corporate reputation management consistently remains among, if not at, the top of the league when it comes to what businesses should prioritise in terms of PR.

Yes, digital and internal communications played a critical role throughout the year – and will continue to do so into 2021 – however, it is reputation – the overall perception of an organisation that is held by is external and internal stakeholders (based on its past and current actions as well as its future behaviour) – where the bulk of investment should be targeted.

What are the main political and policy battles you’re watching out for in 2021?

If you thought 2020 was going to be a wild ride wait until 2021.  

The fight against coronavirus will continue, the impact of Brexit – either with or without a deal – will follow closely behind, the new US administration will push a whole different agenda, the Scottish, local and mayoral elections could be quite challenging for many, the Nationalists will continue to push for another independence referendum and all this while unemployment and debt soars.

Senior leaders need public affairs partners to help promote and defend their business interests, but also PR support to build their brands, earn trust, protect reputation and generate new leads. Advocacy and communications have never been more important. Thankfully, practitioners have demonstrated their value.

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

Looking at History

Lord Black is Deputy Chairman at Telegraph Media Group and Patron of Conservatives in Communications

My life-changing book now sits rather forlornly on the bottom of the bookshelf. I haven’t opened it for very many years – writing this article propelled me to do so – yet even the sight of its spine, with an orange flash at the top and a sketch of Queen Elizabeth I nestling below, brought the memories instantly  back.

“Looking at History” was a book written for children to explain “the everyday lives of ordinary people from the [time] when they lived in caves until the present.” Published in 1955 by A&C Black (no relation) its author, R. J. Unstead, was a prolific writer of books which sought to entice young people into the joy and importance of history. That’s what it did for me, and for which I shall ever be grateful to him. 

The truth though is that I didn’t actually read it myself. Every night – when I was two, or perhaps three – my Mother would sit by the bed and read it to me – the Romans, Tudors and Stuarts, Queen Victoria, Churchill. I can hear her still unfolding the past to me. What that book did was to instil into me a fascination with history which has guided my life – through school, Cambridge and into politics. 

Years later, my Mother also unveiled to me the magic of music when she introduced me to the wonder of Schubert – another life changing experience. 

It makes me pause to think. It’s sometimes not so much the book that changes your life – but who reads it to you. 

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

This piece was written for The House Magazine.

Corporate reputation management

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, Co-Chair of the PRCA Corporate Group and Founder & Director at do Different. 

This time yesterday, I was co-hosting an event, on behalf of the PRCA Corporate Group, which posed the question: When should business #TakeAStance? And in the spirit of doing things differently, we wanted to keep it brief yet engaging. The 45-minute session began with a video snapshot of 2020’s political, economic and social events and how organisations responded to them, before moving onto a lively discussion and Q&A.

With thanks to Westminster Digital for the production and to all participants, including Natasha Jones, Head of Communications and Policy at Funding Circle; Paul Holmes, Founder & Chair of PRovoke; and Rebecca Donnelly, my fellow co-chair and UEA graduate.

I’m particularly interested in this topic because I’m of the opinion that, while some functions in communications rise and fall in terms of where they are in the pecking order, corporate reputation management consistently remains among, if not at, the top of the league when it comes to what businesses should prioritise in terms of PR.

Yes, digital and internal communications played a critical role throughout the year – and will continue to do so into 2021 – however, it is reputation – the overall perception of an organisation that is held by its external and internal stakeholders (based on its past and current actions as well as its future behaviour) – where the bulk of investment should be targeted.

For those of you interested in my perspective here’s a quick snapshot. Like many other Conservatives in Communications, I closely follow current affairs and keep our supporters and my clients informed about what’s on and coming up on the horizon. While they are proactive in terms of taking a stance and communicating it internally, they are more reserved or opposed to communicating it externally. Why so?

To strike a balance, what I suggest is asking yourself four business-level questions:

1. What’s the purpose of my business?

2. Will taking a stand negatively or positively impact our purpose?

3. Will taking a stand hinder our future ability to attract and/ or retain customers and employees?

4. Does this issue rise to the level of a core issue vs a preference?

Should your business take a stance or not? That’s up to you! Sometimes the answer will be yes. More often it will be no. But, before you rush into supporting a position go through the process I have just outlined.

This piece was written for do Different.

What’s in store for 2021?

We asked our team and industry patrons for their opinions.

Katie Perrior is Chair of iNHouse Communications

It’s wishful thinking to believe 2021 will see a return to normality. The fight against Covid-19 will continue as the No.1 priority, but the impact of Brexit – with or without a deal – will follow closely behind. As vaccines continue to roll out, there might be light at the end of the tunnel. In reality, once the Budget is out of the way, the Government faces challenging local elections with an impending political crisis unfolding in Scotland as the Nationalists push for a second referendum. All of this through a backdrop of rising unemployment. In short, no Prime Minister has faced so many challenges at once since the Second World War. A supportive team, with senior ministers, officials and advisers in control of their own briefs and who can command loyalty from others, partnered with clear and concise messaging from the PM himself will get them through it and it’s up to all of us to do what we can to help. This battle has only just begun.

Iain Anderson is Executive Chairman at Cicero/AMO 

With a new president in the US the idea of ‘build back better‘ is going to be the mantra of many governments across the globe. In the UK, it is already the mantra of the current administration. Turning up with ideas to help that effort will be the starting point for 2021. Covid-19 has also exposed a four-speed UK. Navigating another constitutional debate in Scotland will be of key importance when the starting gun gets fired on the Holyrood poll in the new year. 

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications 

Problems always bring opportunities, and public affairs professionals are the ultimate problem solvers.  

The big challenge on the political horizon was supposed to have been Brexit. But even this historic issue has been eclipsed by the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Even as the UK leaves the EU there will be British firms who need help to do business on the continent and EU firms who need help to do business over here. As for the pandemic, it has fundamentally reshaped British government and the British economy, and businesses will need help in seizing the opportunities and avoiding any fall-out. 

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Founder & Director at do Different.

Adam wrote a longer piece here.

Aisha Cuthbert is Head of Communications at a large housing association

Aisha wrote a longer piece here.

Laura Dunn is a Digital, Social and Creative Communications Consultant to MPs 

Many MPs have utilised the benefit of digital during the pandemic and over the two lockdowns. From hosting Facebook Live Q&A sessions with constituents to spotlighting local businesses who continued to safely trade and diversified their services to help their communities, MPs’ social media channels have taken on a new meaning and purpose to provide coronavirus updates, and keep constituents informed of their work and ways they can help during these times.  

It’s been interesting to see the individual brands of different MPs emerge on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and the different types of content that are being produced. One series to highlight is Andrea Leadsom’s ‘ParliFacts’ videos.  

There has been much debate about the use of digital in Parliament and the ‘hybrid’ model that was introduced by the House to enable participation in-person and remotely by Members. Expect this debate to continue into the new year. 

Finley Morris is a Parliamentary Researcher 

Covid-19 has reshaped ways of working for most people and the offices of Members of Parliament are no exemption. Teams are now working remotely – or at least semi-remotely – and are likely to continue doing so throughout 2021, meaning direct contacts will always be far more efficient. In short, brush-up on who you know. Brexit, Covid-19 and the economy are all issues that swamp Members’ inboxes daily and they’re not going away any time soon; to communicate with MPs in 2021 must be to practice the art of brevity

Gavin Ellwood is Founder & Director at Ellwood Atfield (EA)

Although the UK recruitment market has experienced a 50% drop since the start of the pandemic, there continues to be a demand for communications and advocacy skill sets. As organisations navigate Covid-19 and the economic turmoil, C-suite leaders increasingly rely on their communicators for wise counsel and action – as Churchill once said, “the difference between management and leadership is communication.” A national vaccination programme will be a boost for the market, giving the confidence for leaders and managers to re-invest in new talent for the recovery. Some of the temporary shifts in how the office-based work is delivered will become permanent, a new ‘hybrid’ model of home and office working will doubtless emerge, though it can only be long-term if it is sustainable. As responsibility for regulation moves from the EU to the UK, we are experiencing an increased demand for policy and regulatory expertise. Whether actively looking or open to opportunities, I encourage you to put your best digital foot forward and brush-up your LinkedIn profiles in readiness for what’s ahead.

Alec Zetter is Policy and Public Affairs Headhunter at Ellwood Atfield (EA)

It has been a tough eight months in the recruitment market. What was supposed to be an exciting year of new growth hires to prepare business for Brexit has, instead, seen thousands of redundancies – remember “full employment”? – and share prices plummet (unless you work in food delivery or online shopping). The number of opportunities out there have fluctuated since March 23, from complete shutdown to small merry-go-rounds in certain sectors. 

However, there is certainly reason to be positive. The message from our clients and others is clear: communications, advocacy and public affairs are as important as they’ve ever been, and the value placed on them will only increase as we look to recover from the pandemic, re-write our legislative and regulatory frameworks and repair the economy. Associations, businesses and NFPs need to have their voices heard, and who better to deliver that for them than, well, Tories (and others) in Comms. 

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

This piece was written for our website.

In-house trends for 2021

Aisha Cuthbert is Deputy Director of Conservatives in Communications and Head of Communications at a large housing association 

2020 was a peculiar yet interesting year for most sectors, not least for those people working in communications. For those, like me, who work in-house, there were many ups and downs. However, whatever function you provide, working as part of a team has been essential to getting through and beyond this challenging period. I look forward to meeting up with my colleagues in-person soon.

More than ever, internal communications colleagues needed to be aligned to what customer communications and public relations teams were pushing out externally. For those of us supporting industries where regulatory changes are part of the course – such as those triggered in response to Brexit, Covid-19 and the flagging economy – we needed to be up to speed and ready to tailor messages for our various audiences.

Looking ahead, what does 2021 have in-store? Here are some of my hunches.

1. Public affairs/ public policy remains critical, top priority for organisations 

With our changing world and regulations new policies will no doubt be announced and implemented quickly. Industries need to follow these developments closely and ensure that their voices are heard by the decision-makers. Those that rely on government grants or subsidies – of which there are limited public funds and resources to go round – will find themselves competing in ever-crowded markets. The smart organisations will continue to prioritise public affairs to ensure that their voice is heard.

2. Timely and compelling stakeholder communications will remain key

During times of economic uncertainty, consumers and partners will be sticking with brands that they trust and can rely on. Good customer service and clear communications is essential to this, regardless of whether you work in a B2B, B2C or B2G industry.

3. Internal communications continues to take on greater importance

Keeping your staff motivated and dedicated to providing excellent customer service will be essential in 2021. Economic uncertainty, redundancies and an ever-changing world will make that task more difficult. Internal communications professionals will need to empower line managers, giving them the tools they need to keep their teams motivated. Everything should be connected – clear message alignment with your core mission will be paramount.

Whatever 2021 brings, 2020 has had a dramatic effect on communications and the professionals that work within it. The last 12 months have demonstrated to senior leaders just how important communications is. Those with strong in-house teams are valuable because they understand the organisation’s culture, current themes, feelings and can tackle problems with persuasive and imaginative communications. Communications professionals are now seen as an essential part of forward-thinking organisations who want to survive and thrive in the years to come.

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

This piece was written for this website.

Governments make mistakes – and some are avoidable

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications 

Prime ministers make mistakes for many reasons. One of them is because of their over-reliance on a handful of individuals for advice. Another is because No.10 is like a beehive, with ideas and instructions pulsing out from the centre, but with very little reverse-flow. And, of course, prime ministers feel that they need to project an image of strength and certainty, and therefore do not always encourage contradictory views. The result can be ‘group think’, and avoidable errors. 

The military has long been aware of the dangers of group think and they have sought to counter the tendency towards it by commissioning ‘Red Teams’ – small groups tasked with challenging existing or proposed plans or operations. After the catastrophe of 9/11 the US military formalised this concept by establishing the Army Directed Services Office. Other militaries, including the British, prefer to set up ad hoc Red Teams. 

This external scrutiny practice has now been adopted by big business. Company boards, like cabinets, are prone to group think and ‘confirmation bias’. Non-executive directors are often reluctant to contradict conventional wisdom for fear of jeopardising their chances of re-appointment. The solution is either to have a shadow board, or to commission a Red Team to feed critiques and alternatives directly to the chairman or CEO. 

Good lobbyists know that the best way to ensure the success of a campaign is to try from the outset to put yourself in the shoes of your opponents. Once you understand their thinking, you can anticipate their initial moves, and pre-counter their counter moves. You can also anticipate their key messages and attack-lines, and then seek to neutralise them in advance. Knowing your enemy is a pre-requisite of a successful campaign. 

For governments seeking to avoid making unnecessary mistakes through lazy group think there are several options. The prime minister can make him or herself open to advice from a wide range of sources. He or she can appoint a cabinet made up of politicians from different wings of the party, and with differing backgrounds and viewpoints, and can then encourage open debate. The problem here is that every cabinet minister represents a department or ministry and is therefore likely to have pre-prepared briefs and siloed opinions. So, the alternative, in order to obviate all these dangers is to set up a Red Team. 

In the UK government context, a Red Team would have to be small, and it would have to operate independently. It would have to be based outside of Westminster and Whitehall – possibly outside of London. It would have to be staffed by people who agree with the government’s underlying philosophy, but who are able to set aside their instincts in order to put themselves in the mindset of the opposition. And those individuals would have to be appointed on short fixed-term contracts, in order to ensure that they did not themselves become institutionalised. The Red Team would have to be led by somebody with an insatiable intellectual curiosity, who was not afraid to make controversial – and contradictory – recommendations. Importantly, that individual, like the heads of the three security services, would have to have unrestricted access to the prime minister. 

For minimal financial outlay the government would have at its disposal a team which could stress-test existing policy and suggest alternatives where they are found to be flawed. It could save the government from making avoidable mistakes, and ultimately save the nation vastly more than it cost to set up and run. It is time for the Government to consider the formation of a ‘Red Team’ in order to counter ‘group think’ and ‘confirmation bias’. Otherwise, a different kind of ‘red team’ might take its place after the next general election. 

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

This piece was written for this website.

It’s time for Boris to focus again on levelling-up Britain

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

Boris Johnson has had a rough fortnight. In ugly scenes, the Prime Minister lost his most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, his long-standing communications aide Lee Cain and even, temporarily at least, his own personal freedom, as he was forced to self-isolate in his Downing Street flat after meeting an MP later diagnosed with Covid-19.

And on Friday his key lieutenant, Home Secretary Priti Patel, reacted to a critical report by apologising for the unintended results of her behaviour, which some civil servants felt was bullying. Government can be tough, and high office requires tough elected politicians and equally tough people working with them as both their advisers and civil servants. As a government special adviser myself for three-and-a-half years, working alongside Dominic, Lee, Priti and occasionally Boris himself, I know that pressure well and the relentless focus needed to get things done by people at the top. There is always a tension between the political team, who are generally in the roles for very short periods of time, and the longer-serving civil servants.

I certainly made myself very clear to civil servants over the years, sometimes in very forthright terms, but I know that my intentions, like Priti Patel’s, were always to get the things done that the Conservative government was elected to do, not to make anyone feel uncomfortable or intimidated.

So I hope the psychodrama inside Downing Street and beyond is now over, not just for my friends who still work there, but, above all, for the country.

And while it’s unfortunate timing, Boris’s self-imposed solitude is actually a useful moment for him to think carefully about who to appoint to a new top team.

His new chief of staff has to be anonymous to the public but well-known and trusted by ordinary Conservative MPs, who have often felt neglected recently by a bullish Number 10. Someone like long-standing Conservative backroom operator David Canzini would be ideal.

The Prime Minister will be using this time to mull over many issues. But to his immense credit, instead of feeling flat in the flat, BoJo is getting his mojo back.

He is using this much-needed break to push forward important announcements, showing the Government’s commitment to a greener economy, a stronger defence system and outlining his desire to “level-up” the economy.

One problem, though, is that most people don’t have a clue exactly what “levelling-up” means.

A year ago, Boris was telling us all to “get Brexit done – unleash Britain’s potential”. The first bit is done, so now Boris needs to explain the second.

The reality is, levelling-up is a very simple, but radical, idea. Boris believes everyone in the country, and particularly in the North of England, should have exactly the same opportunities and government attention.

This means investing in neglected high streets, high-speed rail across the North and an ambitious local public transport fund aiming to make bus, train and tram travel as good as London’s.

Environmental reforms are a huge part of levelling-up too.

Many will have rolled their eyes at last week’s news that petrol-only and diesel-only cars are to be phased out over the next decade.

But buying that greener, more efficient new car you’re going to get anyway in the next decade will create jobs and pump money into an economy which desperately needs it, as well as saving the planet.

As many as 40,000 extra jobs could be created in places such as the West Midlands, the North-East and North Wales through the manufacture of new electric cars alone.

Making our homes, schools and hospitals greener and more energy- efficient over the next 10 years could create a further 50,000 jobs.

And not only will levelling-up create a fairer system for everyone, it’s also good politics. Boris knows many voters in the North only lent the Conservatives their vote in last year’s election, and may switch back to Labour in 2024, especially now Jeremy Corbyn is gone.

Boris has got to repay the trust of these floating voters by making their jobs more secure and the country safer – to do what governments are meant to do.

With a line now hopefully drawn under the Downing Street soap opera, Boris is getting back to what he does best – being the Boris we elected in 2019, the outward-looking leader who connects with people from all walks of life.

But more than that, Boris understands that the Government’s job is to make Britain be all it can be.

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

This piece was written for The Sunday Express.

Mental health in Lockdown Britain

GUEST POST: James Price is Senior Account Director at Hanover Communications. Connect on LinkedIn. Follow on Twitter

Many of the unpleasant by-products of this rotten year are easy to see: masks abound, streets are quieter and many, many pubs, restaurants and shops are shut. But another consequence of 2020, the one I fear the most, cannot be seen. Like the virus itself, it stays hidden away inside us – out of sight but never out of mind.

I am talking about the potentially devastating damage to our mental health if the people of Britain are locked away over the winter, unable to participate in the simple things that make life worth living; seeing friends, holding loved ones and generally feeling hopeful about a brighter tomorrow. 

It’s hard to consider, for example, the idiotic measures on ‘non-essential goods’ being rolled out in Wales, without concluding that those in charge are getting the balance disastrously wrong. Likewise, the suggestion of banning people from separate households from meeting outside feels so inhumane and so thoughtless, that it simply cannot have been devised by someone living alone in a small flat.

Yet putting aside, for a moment, the official response to the lockdown – suffice to say if we do not learn to talk to one another and share our struggles at this time, then the epidemic in depression and anxiety will have truly ruinous effects on society, on the economy, and on families. 

In recent years, our healthcare system and occasionally our institutions have made some important steps towards acknowledging that poor mental health can destroy individuals and families as much as any virus. And public figures, from Prince William to Lady Gaga, have been admirably brave in talking about their experiences. 

But we remain, as a nation, emotionally constipated in our ability to talk about the struggles that millions have faced, are facing, and will face before this pandemic is behind us. Of course, emoting endlessly about our feelings with no practical end in sight is counter-productive, and with our stiff upper lips and propensity to Keep Buggering On, we are hardly suited to being a nation of navel-gazers. But for the last 20 years, the number one killer in the UK for men and women aged 20-34 has been suicide. Suffering in silence is infinitely worse than oversharing.

Six years ago I tried to kill myself several times. I was completely beaten by depression, saw no joy, no future and no point in carrying on living. I nearly jumped in front of several tubes, prepared to jump off a tall building, contemplated overdosing on something horrible and (bizarrely, looking back now) would often cycle around London at night hoping to be hit by buses.

And while the fear that I may once again fall into the depths of such a personal Hell again has never really left me (and bubbles of despair occasionally waft up from the depths), I slowly got better and have been piecing my life back together ever since. There are still many amends to make, not to mention the unpayable debt to my beautiful mum who talked me down from the edge. But I am vastly luckier than the thousands of people who don’t get better and take their lives every year, not least because my employer understands and takes these issues seriously, and because I have an understanding group of friends and family.

Because of that, I have tried to speak candidly and calmly about the struggles I have had with the depression that almost killed me. As a former Government Special Adviser and Conservative Parliamentary candidate, my logic has been that if a big, ugly, hairy right-wing Brexiteer can talk openly about having been suicidal, it might make it easier for others to do the same. 

As a result, over the past few years, dozens, possibly hundreds of people have got in touch privately to share their worries and fears. It’s tough to hear, sometimes unbearably so, but it does seem that the simple act of talking out loud about our struggles helps. By acknowledging our feelings, we can begin to define them, measure them and crucially, to understand that they have their limits. And treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy, not to mention medication, can alleviate acute cases. 

Of course more funding from businesses and the Government to help those who particularly need to speak to professionals will help, too. But I fear that unless we collectively resolve to fight it, this winter could be shattering to the mental wellbeing of so many people who have already struggled through 2020. A national effort will be required to administer consolation to our fellow creatures in this dark hour. 

So I am asking for you to take a minute to reach out to someone you haven’t heard from in a while and remind them that you exist and care about them. And if you’re struggling through dark days as you read this, remember that it really will be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright; then it isn’t the end.

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This piece was written for The Telegraph.