We’re optimistic about the future with Rishi and Kemi

  • Tories can no longer be accused of being ‘male, stale and pale’  
  • Though the Prime Minister should promote even more women and young talent
  • Several supporters were re-/ elected as Councillors on May 6  

Conservatives in Communications (CiC), the independent and informal industry network of professionals and students, has today published the results of its second annual census, which was sponsored by Hanover Communications. Its 735-strong membership, including 45 current MPs and Peers with a background or interest in the sector, were invited to give their views on a variety of hot topics to help it better understand the current and future landscape as well as allow the team to better serve supporters and add more value going forward.  

For a second consecutive year – and by a landslide (56%) – supporters believe the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak MP, has been the best communicator during the pandemic. The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps MP, made it into the top three and shares second place on 9% alongside the Health & Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock MP. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson MP, fell from 2nd to 5th place on 6%, just behind the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove MP on 7%.  

Supporters were also asked which rising stars they would promote at the forthcoming reshuffle. 513 votes were cast for some 128 politicians. The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Kemi Badenoch MP, scored by far the most. The Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Tom Tugendhat MP, and the Minister for Safeguarding, Victoria Atkins MP, came second; Alicia Kearns MP polled third; while the Home Office PPS, Paul Holmes MP, and the former DCMS Minister, Tracey Crouch MP, share fourth place. Female MPs made up 80% of the top ten nominations, which is great news.

Turning to the mainstream media, eight out of nine popular outlets saw increases when assessed for their trustworthiness. The score for Russia Today remained low at 1.46 out of 5. When asked about whether the launch of GB News is a good or bad thing for the UK overall, Conservatives in Communications responded positively (3.90 out of 5). Respondents continue to get their news from a variety of sources, including political blogs: POLITICO is the most read (64%) with Guido Fawkes (61%) and ConservativeHome (49%) trailing someway behind.  

While two-thirds of respondents believe the Government’s Covid-19 communications strategy has improved since 2020 and put its performance since the start of 2021 at 3.46 out of 5 – up from 3.18 before – they were less enthusiastic when it came to the visual appearance of the No.9 Downing Street briefing room (3.10 out of 5 verses 3.79 for the previous setup in No.10).  

Turning to their own profession, more than 99% are in employment, almost three quarters of respondents indicated that their organisation grew or hired new staff during the pandemic, and supporters are more optimistic than they were in May 2020 (8 out of 10, up from a still solid 7.24). Taking don’t knows out of the equation, more than three quarters of respondents support the PRCA’s six-point Public Confidence Plan for Reform in response to the David Cameron and Lex Greensill inquiries.  

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Executive Director, said:

“We are, first and foremost, a networking group. We understand the importance of creating and maintaining industry relationships. So, it’s been difficult not having had the opportunities to meet in-person for more than 12 months. Despite this, we’ve kept the show on the road and hopefully presented like-minded individuals with the chance to share and benefit from each other’s knowledge and opportunities, including jobs and our mentoring scheme. 97% of the respondents feel being a supporter is worthwhile.”  

He added:

“Take the recent Andy Street, Ben Houchen and Jill Mortimer wins, plus hundreds of councillors re-/ elected around the country – including many of our own supporters – the future looks bright for the Conservative party. Contrast that with Labour, which is in turmoil. What with Labour in Communications voting David Lammy as the Labour party’s best communicator and calling for him to play a bigger role as a spokesperson, plus Sir Keir Starmer’s ridiculous reshuffle, we’re lacking any serious opposition now. That isn’t good for our democracy.”

Note to Editors

You can learn more about the survey and access all of the results here

As covered by POLITICO London Influence and PR Week.

Time to get brutal … 

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

There have always been bitter rivalries within government. In Tudor times it was Thomas Cromwell versus Thomas More. In more modern times it was Alastair Campbell versus Charlie Whelan. And now it seems (unbelievably) to be Carrie Symonds versus Dominic Cummings. How did it come to this during a pandemic?

In these battles, it’s essential that there is a winner and loser. Thomas More lost his head. Charlie Whelan lost his job. Once defeated (sacked or dead) there’s no way back. The winner literally takes all. 
 
No.10 is currently a battleground where relatively minor figures are engaged in non-mortal combat. It’s a battle involving text messages, notes of meetings, internal inquiries and leaks. And of course, who paid for the No.10 flat refurbishment!? Each side has their favoured journalists who seem perfectly happy to be used in a petty battle of influence and revenge. For the most part, normal folk couldn’t care less. 

If it’s true that someone at No.10 decided to brief against Dominic Cummings, they made a major mistake. A brilliant but potentially malevolent life force, he should have been left alone. His views on the failings of the machinery of government are correct. That is why he developed many enemies.

The problem, and it’s a major one, is that it diminishes the Prime Minister. That’s why it can’t be allowed to go on. There needs to be a triumphant winner and a loser, one who is out for the count and unable to return.

The danger for the PM is that it is hard to see Cummings being the loser. If there really is a dossier, No.10 has every reason to be scared. So do quite a few Cabinet Ministers whose failures and failings will be laid bare. We need to reach the shabby denouement of this sad little play as soon as possible. The theatre curtain can then be lowered, and we can go home.

And then what? The PM needs to appoint a real heavyweight to take over the running of No.10, sack the squabbling advisers, carry out a brutal reshuffle and start doing what he does best – Being Boris!

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

This piece was written for our website.

Scottish Tories need to save their campaign to save the Union

GUEST POST: Katie Frank is a Consultant at Portland Communications. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Over 700 years have passed since the Scottish Wars of Independence. While ballots, not battles, is now how Scotland decides its future, one thing is for certain: nothing, not even a pandemic, can shake the insatiable appetite Scotland has to debate one topic. Independence.

Since the referendum in September 2014, the Scottish Conservatives have been beating the drum for Unionism, with one key message: ‘No, to another divisive independence referendum’.

In the elections of 2016 and 2017, the Conservatives pounded the pavements with this simple message. It resulted in an electoral renaissance. Huge swathes of Scotland turned blue, some areas for the very first time. The Conservatives scalped major nationalist names in 2017, including Alex Salmond and the Westminster Leader Angus Robertson. SNP seats in their former heartland of North East Scotland were reduced to a small speck of yellow on the map surrounded by a sea of blue.

However, the election in 2019 saw this support wane. The loss of Ruth Davidson at the spearhead of the Unionist fight has been a damaging one for the Conservatives. Her successors, Jackson Carlaw, and now Douglas Ross, have seemingly failed to mobilise support for Unionism in the same way.

The Conservatives are the most electorally successful political party in the UK, and they are still the primary force for Unionism in Scotland – but they need to save their campaign if they are to resist the march of the nationalists and save the Union. With Scottish Labour hot on their heels, the Conservatives may accidentally hand the election, and the fate of the Union, to the nationalists unless they find the spark they had under Ruth Davidson.

Personality matters. This is something that No.10 and Edinburgh are painfully aware of.

The Conservative Party machine is undeniably an efficient and sometimes brutal one. Something Jackson Carlaw quickly learned. The Party machine has now started to kick into overdrive once more after a recent decline in the Scottish polls. Ruth Davidson, despite standing down, is featuring more prominently than Douglas Ross on much of the political literature and the Westminster rumour-mill is swirling with talk of potential plans for the Prime Minister to charge northwards to save the Union. These two big personalities could eclipse Douglas Ross in an effort to save the Union and the life of the Conservative and Unionist Party in Scotland.

Yet, personality is not everything. The Scottish Conservatives in the 2016 and 2017 elections were also not just the one-trick pony they now appear to be. They were strong on business, on education, on healthcare, and on the justice system. They seized effectively on the multiple policy failures that ran riot under the SNP’s leadership.

The recent internecine warfare in the nationalist movement between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond has damaged the post-Brexit uptick in support for independence and the reputation of the Government at Holyrood. But the Scottish Conservatives have not seized upon this opportunity or the numerous policy failures with the same vigour they would have done a mere 4 years ago.

The SNP’s PR machine is a slick one and the Scottish Labour Party have finally started to find their way out of the electoral wilderness. If the Scottish Conservatives do not revitalise their campaign and show a positive alternative future for Scotland, then they may entirely lose their place as the main party of opposition in Scotland.

Recent polls suggest that support for independence is teetering on a knife edge. But, the Scottish Conservatives must save their campaign and the life of the Party in Scotland, if they are to save the very Union itself.

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

This piece was written for Portland’s newsletter Inside Holyrood 2021. Subscribe here.

Levelling-up needs a brand

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications

“The government’s communications needed a clearer strategy and more coherent messaging” – that’s according to a new report published by the Institute for Government (IFG), which identifies 10 key lessons for the government’s strategy exactly a year after the first nationwide lockdown.  

I would go a step further and argue that this lesson should not only be applied to its “response to shocks” like global pandemics, terror events or states of emergency, but should be applied to the communication of all policy going forward – starting with the levelling-up agenda.  

The Government’s flagship levelling-up agenda isn’t a straightforward “policy” as such, nor can it be determined by any one single metric or a single piece of legislation. Instead, levelling-up can be seen as a set of institutional, fiscal and social reforms that together forge an ambition to tackle the long-term challenges that have haunted “left-behind and underperforming parts of the UK” for many decades, such as inequalities in health, income and opportunity.  

In order to communicate this agenda and for this bold ambition to be realised, the government should consider creating a brand for levelling-up. As Demos suggests, in the same way that brands were created for David Lloyd George’s ‘Old Age Pension’ and Aneurin Bevan’s ‘National Health Service’, Boris Johnson’s levelling-up agenda needs its very own brand.  

The politics of branding isn’t new to this Prime Minister. During his time as Mayor of London, Mr Johnson’s use of “brand Boris” was palpable; from Boris bikes to Battersea Power Station, regardless of their relative successes, his legacy in the city lives on and his impact is as visible today as it was at the time, which is far more than can be said for his successor Sadiq Khan. 

Having a clear umbrella narrative, a “brand identity” so to speak, is extremely important in determining the perceived focus of any organisation – not least, as the IFG notes, the government. This umbrella narrative helps voters place what might otherwise seem like an unconnected and often quite fragmented set of announcements under one coherent ambition, in particular one that the majority of people can support.  

Political theorists from Descartes to Daniel Kahneman have reiterated the importance of logical coherence when it pertains to voters’ general understanding of events and political announcements. The more coherent an individual perceives an action to be with their beliefs and their understanding of the world around them, the more likely they are to comprehend and ultimately support it. 

Creating a strong, consistent and clear brand for the levelling-up agenda may help the government’s chance of re-election in 2024. Just as consumers prefer to buy branded goods because they know what quality product they can expect or because they expect value for money and know they can save time choosing between other options – voters do the same.  

While there’s been some backlash since the summer, the Chancellor’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme is an obvious example of a well-branded policy that very quickly won support and widespread recognition among the public. A more equitable example for the levelling-up agenda is the NHS. What began as just a policy of free healthcare at the point of delivery is now a national institution recognised the world over because of its well-communicated values, principles and expectations. 

However it decides to do so – be it with a Rishi Sunak style signature or a unique identity and coherent narrative – the Government’s levelling-up agenda needs its very own brand.  

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

This piece was written for our website. 

Delivering bad news

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

I recently hosted an event for the PRCA Corporate Group, where we discussed ‘delivering bad news’.

With many thanks to two of my clients: Aisha Cuthbert, Head of Communications at One Housing, and Andy Taylor, Head of External Affairs at Network Rail, as well as Conservatives in Communications patron Kulveer Ranger, Global Head of Strategy and Communications (Financial Services & Insurance) at Atos, for your contributions.

In brainstorming topics for our first event of the year, we felt that 2021 – as we finally emerge from the global pandemic and adjust to the full impact of Brexit – is shaping up to be a challenging economic environment for both large and small businesses alike. You only had to hear the Chancellor’s Budget – where he revealed a titanic shift in policy towards a higher tax, bigger borrowing, expanded state – to understand the difficulties that are facing us.

While many of the tough decisions, such as making redundancies, have been postponed again until after the furlough scheme ends, we believe corporate communications professionals may well find themselves tasked with articulating and delivering bad news as their organisations navigate these challenges. 

So, we discussed how to mitigate the negative impact on our companies, and salvage reputation when things are going south. Hopefully, it was a useful exercise for those starting out, those who have recently switched roles, and even for those seasoned pros to pick-up new tips and share ideas. 

This piece was written for do Different.

Reaction to #Budget2021

“Even by the standards of Brown, Darling, Osborne and Hammond many of the details in this Budget had been leaked in advance, prompting the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways & Means to issue a joint statement reprimanding the Chancellor. In addition, you must have been hiding under a rock not to have seen the six minute Twitter video (of Netflix quality) plus all the Sunak-branded graphics. What followed was another first: a press conference on the Budget itself. Make no mistake, this was about selling Brand Rishi and shaping opinion before the papers had their say. Judging by the editorials – not the front pages – and the immediate polling, he did his job. This populist government is playing the long game.”

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

This Conservative government isn’t leaving office for many years to come. Really pleased to see £19 million announced to tackle domestic abuse in England and Wales, with funding for a network of ‘Respite Rooms’ to support homeless women and a programme to prevent re-offending. It’s an issue that is close to my heart and affects so many. All too often it is hidden and not reported.”

Aisha Cuthbert, Head of Communications at One Housing

“Slick, well-managed Budget from the Chancellor. I’m excited by the prospect of a rapid recovery but let’s hope interest rates don’t rise in the meantime. Onwards and upwards!”

Katie Perrior, Chair of iNHouse Communications

“The impact of Covid has blown away the dogma of Tory fiscal policy. This is a Chancellor acting and redefining not only the fiscal landscape but the political landscape with his ‘right thing to do’ approach to the economy.”

Kulveer Ranger, Global Head of Strategy & Communications (Financial Services & Insurance) at Atos

“A skilful Budget making the best of the terrible hand the Covid crisis has dealt him. This was the first Instagram Budget.”

Lionel Zetter, Patron of Conservatives in Communications

“The Chancellor’s decision to write into the Budget lead-in times for changes in corporation tax was a canny political move as it gives business time to bake in the adjustments and it gives him the opportunity to defer those changes to much fanfare later down the line, if the economic situation allows.”

Naomi Harris, Director at WA Communications

“A perfect combination of politically astute, of-the-moment statements and fiscally flexible future policies. But scratch below the surface and the Chancellor has outlined a titanic shift in Conservative policy towards a higher tax, bigger borrowing, expanded state. This shift must now be reconciled with the Party and decades of conservative economic policy making thus far. Sunak’s second Budget is one he’ll answer for years to come.”

Poppy Trowbridge, Strategy and board advisory

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.

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

This piece was written for the SEC Newsgate blog.

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.

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

This piece was written for our website. 

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.    

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

This piece was written for The Page.