Has BoJo lost his mojo? No, and he’s shovel-ready

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

It’s been almost a year since members elected Boris Johnson as Leader of the Conservative Party and British Prime Minister, and six months since he won a personal mandate from the country – and a stonking majority at that! How is he performing? This piece looks at some of the highs and lows, as well as the future ahead.

The highs

I deal in facts not fiction, so let’s start with the polls. Last December, the UK returned a Tory-led government for the fourth time in a decade: a 44% share of the vote (14m ballots) won him 365 seats* – a Conservative MP for each day of the Gregorian calendar. Today, according to Politico’s Poll of Polls, public support for the ‘People’s Government’ is holding firm.

What’s he achieved vs what did he guarantee? A week after that seismic result in 2019, the Government published its Queen’s Speech, outlining the ‘People’s Priorities.’ Chief among them was Mr Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done in January” [2020], which he quickly did. Michael Gove recently confirmed that the UK will “neither accept nor seek any extension to the Transition Period.”

“Extra funding for the NHS” has been enshrined in law and the number of new nurses has increased compared to last year.

Over 3,000 of his “20,000 more police” have been recruited and Robert Buckland has brought about “tougher sentences for criminals”, including the most serious terrorist offenders. “An Australian-style points-based system to control immigration”, as part of a much broader Bill, is due to have its report stage and third reading.

It’s true that millions more have been “invested…in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure,” and that good progress – new consultations and plans to increase investment – has been made towards “Reaching Net Zero by 2050.” All this while not raising “the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance.”

The lows

Britain has been transformed by the coronavirus crisis. The number of GP surgery appointments per annum is likely to be down, not up. 310,000 people, including the Prime Minister and Matt Hancock, have tested positive for the disease. Of those, sadly, 43,500 have died – one of the highest figures in the world. It’s inevitable that there will be, and it’s right that – in time – there is, an inquiry. Lessons must be learned.

Because of Covid-19 – and the measures this government has introduced to combat it – UK public debt has “exceeded 100% of GDP for the first time since 1963.”

The death of George Floyd sparked many protests abroad and at home. A minority of people, on both ends of the spectrum, including Antifa, exploited Black Lives Matter, to behave quite irresponsibly. Our politicians have a vital role to play in healing divisions and addressing issues, which is why I – and others – were surprised it took Mr Johnson – the author of a book about his hero – time to speak out.

Number 10’s handling of these events has created a perception – among backbenchers and commentators – that the Prime Minister has misplaced his mojo.

An analysis

So, some clear wins (promises made, promises kept) and some evident challenges, but challenges that can be overcome with a bold and ambitious plan. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

And yet, if you spend your time talking to Londoners, following the mainstream media and scrolling through Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Government was about to collapse at any given moment – that Sir Keir Starmer, by asking a couple of questions each Wednesday and by sacking Rebecca Wrong-Daily, is about to gain 120 seats for Labour. The mountain’s too high to climb.

These are the same people who: predicted Remain would win the Brexit referendum by a landslide, never imagined Donald J. Trump would become US President and thought Jeremy Corbyn might actually win in 2017 (and two years later). The same people who were confident Priti Patel would resign and Dominic Cummings would be fired, and tweet #WhereisBoris on a nearly daily basis.

That said, 44% can be improved upon and regardless of whether there’s any truth in it – perceptions are hard to shake-off. And so, the Government must listen. In particular, No10 must listen to its backbenchers. They are ideally placed to feedback on any disillusionment across the country, before decisions are made. A new liaison between No10 and the Parliamentary Party should be hired.

In my opinion, the appointment would help the Government make sound policy decisions from the get-go and reduce the number of U-turns in the long-run. However, U-turns aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Like subpoenas (writs “commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure”), they needn’t be seen as negative – rather a means of making right.

This government should also listen to experienced conservatives in communications. We recently polled our supporters and they rated its coronavirus communications strategy 3.18 out of 5. While positive, it’s clear improvements can be made. First-up, was phasing out daily press briefings, which I’m glad it has done. I’d also like to see more women MPs around the Cabinet table at the next reshuffle.

What we need to hear from Mr Johnson tomorrow, in Dudley, is how he’s going to help Britain rebuild itself and win again after the lockdown. I hope he makes us feel proud about our identity and culture and that his vision is aspirational and opportunistic. The British people have put their faith in him before – a few for the first time – and I’m sure they’ll continue to keep it, if he listens and acts accordingly.

*Election data

 2010201520172019
Votes (000s)10,70411,30013,63713,966
% of UK vote36.136.842.343.6
Seats won 306 330 317 365
% of seats won47.150.848.856.2

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (June 29, 2020).

The X factor?

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

I’d already made-up my mind – before the leadership election got underway – to back Boris Johnson. After three long years of doom and gloom, I was desperate for someone to tell the Tory story of aspiration and opportunity, and luckily – for everyone – the Party membership agreed.

Before casting my vote, I chose to speed read as much as I could about him. I did this for three reasons: personal intrigue, due diligence and ammunition, because many of my closest political friends were wavering or had chosen to support Jeremy Hunt. It’ll come as no surprise that London conservatives often differ in opinions from those of Tories in Yorkshire and Norfolk…

Among the books that I got through were ‘Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson’ by Andrew Gimson and ‘Just Boris: The Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity’ by Sonia Purnell. Page-turners, yet no earth-shattering revelations inside. Neither of them persuaded me otherwise. Here was a man, determined to make it and full of optimism. I was sold. I also recognise this as a quality and an attitude that several of our new MPs have. Exciting times.

One book I didn’t get to until Christmas was his very own ‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History’. While Gimson and Purnell shed light on his past, here Johnson exposes his admiration for the national treasure and where he may take inspiration in the future. I thoroughly recommend it to Conservatives in Communications.

Churchill and Johnson share more than a few similarities. Both have American ties: one was half American by birth, one was born in New York. Both went to top public schools: one Harrow, one Eton. Both became journalists, writers and politicians; often multi-tasking between all three and using colourful language while doing so! Both developed as orators, having already perfected the written word. Indeed, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his many published works. Both represented multiple constituencies and served in two great offices of state: one as Chancellor of the Exchequer, one as Foreign Secretary. Both refined their images and appealed beyond traditional Conservative voters; championing the working class or blue-collar workers. Both would deploy their good-humoured, self-depricating formula to cheer-up the nation during two turbulent periods: the Second World War and us leaving the European Union.

As I have said before, optimism isn’t everything. A detailed vision must be articulated and executed by a sound team. That happened during the recent campaign and the result provided a mandate. After we’ve left the EU later this month, expect there to be a reshuffle of ministers (hopefully this includes promotions from the 2019 intake) and of others too, if Dominic Cummings gets his way:

With no election for years and huge changes in the digital world, there is a chance and a need to do things very differently… We do not care about trying to ‘control the narrative’ and all that New Labour junk and this government will not be run by ‘comms grid’.”

I’m glad Cummings recognises “We have some extremely able people [in communications]” and is willing to take risks i.e. “we also must upgrade skills across the SpAd network.” If you’ve got the X factor and want to help shape history throughout – what the US Ambassador to the UK calls – the roaring twenties, find out more and apply here.

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This piece was written for our website.

Beyond Brexit: unleashing Britain’s potential

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

‘Get Brexit Done’ is a reasonable enough slogan with which to start this election campaign. But we need to know why the Conservatives want to get Brexit done; how they want to use our new-found freedom; and what it can do to promote democratic and economic repair. The Tories have a good case. Now they need to make it.

Not my words but those of The Spectator’s editor a month after party conference in Manchester.

Despite it taking longer than anticipated, Parliament was eventually dissolved, the Prime Minister met with the Queen and the Conservatives launched their election campaign in Birmingham. The rationale for this was clear: we need to break the impasse so that the government of the day can deliver on the will of the British people. Failure to do so will result in understandable outrage and irreparable damage to trust in politics.

While some people will vote on Brexit alone (Vote for the Tories to get Brexit done; Vote for the Liberal Democrats to stop Brexit one way or another – how democratic!; or Vote for Labour to negotiate yet another deal, hold yet another vote and yet campaign against said deal?), others are looking beyond our relationship with the EU. They are looking for policies which will benefit them and their families as well as businesses, with those priorities based on what matters most to them. 

As demonstrated in their party political broadcast aired last night, the Conservatives understand those priorities to be: strengthening the economy in order to invest in better hospitals, safer streets and improved schools. They have put their weight behind this ambition and in doing so built upon the slogan, packaging it as ‘unleashing Britain’s potential’.

The question becomes – how do you achieve this? I believe the answer lies in a stronger national identity and a common purpose, and that Blue Collar Conservatism offers us a way forward. It is a cause supported by current and former MPs, councillors and activists, the length and breadth of the UK – including poster boys Johnny Mercer (South West), Lee Rowley (Midlands) and Ross Thomson (Scotland). If you missed it on TV, you can – and should – read Lee’s witty yet serious response to the Queen’s Speech on Hansard. Also, if you haven’t seen Simon Jones’ Hansard at the National Theatre starring Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan – do; it’s both genius and devastating.

Blue Collar Conservatism is about championing working people and developing an aspirational agenda to benefit the communities that really feel left behind. Working people stand to benefit most from Conservative policies designed to maximise opportunity and empower them to live their lives; better, together. So much is at stake in this election: don’t be tribal – examine the manifestos when published. 

If – OK, when – the Tories win a majority, now that The Brexit Party isn’t challenging the seats they won back in 2017, I expect we’ll hear much more from Mercer et al. Before then, candidates – including no less than 12 supporters of Conservatives in Communications – should be selling this bold plan on doorsteps while warning voters about the alternative: chaos with Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan pushing for a repeat of two referenda on leaving the EU and breaking up the United Kingdom. No thanks!

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (‘Beyond Brexit: Unleashing Britain’s Potential – November 14, 2019).

What’s next – an early general election perhaps?

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector.

I recently blogged that Boris Johnson must articulate a detailed vision and appoint a sound team to execute on it. He is doing that – and in the process annoying the loony left and some in the mainstream media.

Like Johnson, Michael Gove studied at Oxford and graduated with an upper-second degree, has written for The Spectator and The Times, lists education among his political interests, co-spearheaded the Vote Leave campaign and ran for Tory leader,twice. While Gove served as education secretary under David Cameron, it is Johnson – as prime minister – who has put improving life chances at the heart of his political agenda. While Johnson is determined to deliver Brexit by Halloween, it is Gove who has been put in charge of overseeing preparations across Whitehall for a no-deal scenario. There are many overlaps between the two gentlemen, not least their overall abilities and most especially their ability to express themselves both orally and via the medium of the pen (or keyboard).

Over the weekend, Johnson revealed (in an op-ed for The Times) that – in addition to previous announcements on education, technology and towns – there will be further investment in the NHS. Plus, he confirmed new upgrades for hospitals and recommitted to improving social care. Gove, meanwhile, defined the purpose of this one nation government in a tweet: “Our most important priority [is] rejuvenating our democracy, strengthening our union and embracing new opportunities”. In other words, the referendum question was clear, as were the pledges made at subsequent European, general and local elections, and therefore the mandate to move forward is without doubt.

During his first days in office – rather than setting off for Brussels – Johnson explored the ‘awesome foursome’ that make-up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK); taking pit stops in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if, as the Policy Exchange demands, patriots could “display their area’s symbol or county coat of arms, or similar, on their number plate as is the case in many other European countries like Germany and Switzerland”? Simultaneously, our freedom-loving international trade secretary focused her efforts on life outside of the EU, including free ports and new free trade agreements with the US, Australia and New Zealand, among others.

At the time of writing this, Ipsos MORI and YouGov have the Tories on double-digit leads over Labour. In Brecon and Radnorshire, we saw Labour’s parliamentary candidate drop to fourth place and almost lose his deposit. All this indicates a clear Boris bounce and an electorate totally fed-up with Jeremy Corbyn’s ambiguity on the main issue of the day. Therefore, it’s perfectly understandable that two-thirds of voters now want to get rid of Corbyn before the UK goes to the polls again.

What else has Johnson been doing? In terms of protecting our nation and streets, we’ve seen him board HMS Victorious and appoint Johnny Mercer to head the new Office of Veterans’ Affairs as well as a plan to put 20,000 more bobbies on the beat over the next three years. This, combined with the home secretary’s vision to restore public confidence in law and order, should go some way to addressing the surge in gang violence, knife crime and moped theives affecting the capital’s residents, visitors and tourists.

Perhaps Sadiq Khan should’ve spent less time arguing for a second referendum and attacking the president of our closest ally, and more on the issues that impact Londoners. Is it any wonder that his approval ratings have tanked? Cameron and Johnson defeated Red Ken in 2008 and 2012; let’s ensure Johnson and Shaun Bailey – who has put addressing crime at the centre of his mayoral campaign – defeat Corbyn and Khan next year.

In 2018, almost a quarter of a million new homes were built in England – up from 225,000 12-months earlier and more than double the number when Labour was last in power. There have also been significant environmental milestones reached in England with a 90% drop in plastic bag purchases from the big supermarkets compared with just five years ago. As the environment secretary said recently, “We’re calling time on being a throwaway society”. We are investing for the future.

Borrowing from President Bartlett in The West Wing, I’ve asked myself this: ‘What’s next?’ Johnson’s current administration should build on these accomplishments and aspire to go even further in investing for a better future. I say current as, whichever way you look at it, it appears we are headed for an election this autumn.

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This piece was written for The Commentator (August 18, 2019).

The next leader must be able to tell the Tory story

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

On Wednesday, a group of storytellers – who just so happen to be Conservative supporters – met at the Ellwood Atfield Gallery in Smith Square to hear from Katie Perrior about her time in Number 10, and to explore the purpose of, and indeed future for, the Party.

Perrior served as Theresa May’s PR chief right up until when the 2017 election was called (when May was 24 points up in the national polls). And a fascinating story and exchange of ideas it was for the 100 or so guests – in-house and agency PR and public affairs specialists plus current and former special advisors and CCHQ staffers – who turned up for the relaunch of Conservatives in Communications, which Perrior now chairs.

I won’t spill the beans on what was said, but I do want to share some brief thoughts, based on my experiences, as a way of demonstrating the value that those of us in this network can bring to future leadership campaigns and potentially in government.

I was born in Beverley and grew up in Hull, listening to the band Beautiful South. At just six years of age, my mum died of breast cancer, and shortly after my sixteenth birthday – while finishing my GCSEs – I became an orphan when my dad passed away suddenly. I knew I had a stark choice: to sink or swim. I chose to study – to pursue a career, and to work weekends – so that I could afford to live.

After a much-needed move away from home and positive three years at the University of East Anglia, I jumped on a train to the Beautiful South and began searching for full-time employment – just as signs of a global financial crisis were beginning to emerge. I settled for a life in PR, enhancing the perception of the finance sector and promoting the technology needed to progress it.

Why am I telling you this? The backdrop was an unpopular Tory government under John Major, followed by years in the political wilderness for the Conservatives. And all because of a failure by a succession of people to tell the Tory story of aspiration and opportunity that I knew existed.

In short, the Party didn’t have a convincing narrative and failed to connect with the British electorate which resulted in three consecutive victories for Tony Blair.

Despite the nationalisation of Northern Rock and RBS, and everything else that was happening, David Cameron was unable to secure a majority and ended up forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Whatever your thoughts about those years in power (and mine are positive), there’s no doubt in my mind that George Osborne’s management of the economy, together with strategic and disciplined messaging, helped the Tories to victory in 2015: it was all about, and I apologise in advance, that Long Term Economic Plan.

Confidence in the economy picked up, businesses performed well, and as a result hired new staff, from which I and others subsequently benefited. Fast forward four years and, wow, has the situation reversed. Whichever side you were on before the referendum (or are on now), there’s no doubt in my mind that Brexit is consuming everyone’s time and preventing us from getting on with more important things – and articulating that work.

As the leadership contenders begin to set out their stalls, let’s judge their ability to tell the Tory story – and during that process, where it’s required, I’m sure you’ll see the influence of Conservatives in Communications.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com (May 10, 2019).