The message is central: government comms in a post-Covid world

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

Only the most loyal and optimistic Downing Street hanger-on would now argue that the Government has had ‘a good war’ when it comes to the media handling of the pandemic. The failings of the Number 10 operation and the Government Communication Service more widely have been laid painfully bare almost day by day: confusion, changing vocabulary, unclear advice and an inconsistent cast. For every unexpected star like Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy Chief Medical Officer, there has been a Priti Patel, announcing proudly that shoplifting has fallen while retail has been largely closed for business.

In any event, Number 10 has decided to respond to this series of failures, and has hit upon a structural review. The Government’s media operation will be centralised in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, and the daily briefings, deemed by some a success – “event TV” was one phrase I have heard – will be built upon. Most excitingly, for a media built on the cultivation of personality, there will be an “experienced broadcaster” selected to present these briefings, who will be the face of the Government to many people. It will be a political appointment, and insiders say they would like a woman to get the job.

This is obviously a potential revolution in how the government communicates. If the briefings are televised, even if only in highlights, and feature heavily as soundbites on the news of the day (and they will), the new ‘spokesperson’ will, after the Prime Minister, be probably the most recognisable person in the administration, certainly the one with the most airtime. She (let’s assume Downing Street has its wish) will be in charge of media relations, with a powerful influence over the news agenda on a daily, if not hourly, basis, but she will also have a direct line of communication with the voting public. That is a hugely powerful platform.

Critics have already dismissed this move as ‘presidential’ and an Americanised gimmick. That’s hardly a vote of confidence to look at the hapless succession of White House press secretaries in recent years – Sean Spicer? Sarah Huckabee? The scrappy-but-ineffectual incumbent, Kayleigh McEnany? – and, while handsomely paid, they have not lasted nor had much influence.

The brightest star was Anthony Scaramucci, director of communications for all of 11 days (and with whom I have worked a little). The Mooch is a different kettle of fish: voluble, outgoing, eccentric; self-made, self-assured and self-confident. He was too big, too outrageous, a beast to be kept in the Trump circus for long. Personally – I found – he is affable, courteous and charming, but too quickly he was the message and not the medium. He is now one of the president’s most avowed and entrenched opponents on the Republican side of the aisle.

Traditionalists in the UK dislike the bright clothes and snowy-white teeth of American political staffers, and dismiss them as lightweights. By their logic, as on the Potomac, so by the Thames. Maybe, maybe not. It is perfectly conceivable that the Government might find a respected and serious media figure with genuine heft: the mighty Emily Maitlis might not be ideologically simpatico but would be a formidable hire, Fiona Bruce and Victoria Derbyshire both have impressive CVs and skills, and one can imagine Sophie Raworth or Kirsty Wark ably controlling a rowdy press pack. So we should not write this off ad hominem (or ad feminam).

What should concern people is the structural change in the way the Government speaks to people. If there is a single figure with a daily communion with millions of voters, what does that say about the supposedly inviolable practice of ministers making statements in Parliament, to which they are accountable? How much more comfortable would HMG be delivering brightly wrapped nuggets of good news to a selected audience than have a member of the Cabinet slog through an hour of questions from Members of Parliament after an oral statement?

And how far does influence run both ways? Would this new spokesperson begin to be involved in the creation and shaping of policy as well as its presentation and delivery? Good PR practice says that your comms team should be engaged right from the beginning, able to contribute to a project as part of an organic whole. Is the same true for Whitehall? Would the new figure sit ion on policy-shaping meetings, advising from the outset what might and might not ‘fly’? That would be a major point of interest for Whitehall scrutineers like the excellent Institute for Government.

No-one with any experience in public relations or comms would say the Government’s media operation is flawless. It’s arguably not even very good, and some hard thinking (and new hires) are almost certainly needed. But that doesn’t make any change the right change. This idea of centralisation round a new figurehead would make me uneasy if I were a civil servant, a MP or a journalist. Be careful what you wish for.

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This piece was written for The Telegraph.

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, 44.7% 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 craft of communications and the coming culture war

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

We’re neck deep in that Orwellian future. Fake news is the new norm, and effective communicators will win the coming clash between the ‘based’ and the ‘woke’.

If you’re not entirely sure what those two sentences mean, but you’ve got a good idea that this is an important debate, you’re in the majority. We’re familiar with the language of Brexit, and the emotive political discourse leading up to the EU referendum. It’s rooted in an older, simpler paradigm. But we now need greater nuance to navigate the rhetorical battlefields of the future.

The US culture wars started in the 1920s, with the clash between rural and urban American values. The term was rebooted in the 1960s, placed centre stage by disagreements between conservatives and progressives over moral issues, including marriage and abortion.

‘Pro-life’ verses ‘pro-choice’ is a classic example of the framing of an issue. On the face of it, both seem positive and widely acceptable positions to adopt. In reality, they are diametrically opposite. One emphasises the sanctity of life, based on the conviction that human rights begin in the womb, the other prioritises the well-being of a mother over her unborn infant. No one ever describes themselves as ‘anti-choice’ or ‘pro-death’.

American pollster Frank Luntz demonstrates the importance of persuasive language in Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by asking why people dislike big oil.

America’s energy producers have been their own worst enemies…“drilling for oil”…reminds people of Jed Clampett shooting at the ground, conjuring images of liquid black goo gushing into the sky…

The antidote is simple: they replaced ‘drilling for oil’ with ‘energy exploration’ – far more acceptable, at least semantically.

Language matters. Phrasing matters. Framing matters.

Vote Leave won because 17.4 million people understood and embraced ‘Vote leave, take back control’ – most importantly because it encapsulated the underlying message. You could argue that ‘Make America Great Again’ worked for the Republicans in 2016 in the same way, and that ‘Get Brexit done’ delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives six months ago.

But not all air wars are fought by giant industries to reposition themselves, or by political parties to win elections. The coming culture war will be fought on multiple fronts, across social, digital and traditional media, and with myriad voices and factions. While many combatants will simply shout into echo chambers that reinforce their own worldviews, deepening tribalism – others will cut through, and change the way we think, feel and act.

Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two major flashpoints. The diehard remain coalition piled pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Dominic Cummings, for actions that Durham Police said “might have been a minor breach of the regulations.” But the Prime Minister’s adviser neither resigned nor was forced out.

The old rules no longer apply. Cummings would not have survived in the pre-Trump era. The US President’s relentless refusal to adhere to convention has crossed the Atlantic. There’s a willingness to stand up to received wisdom, herd mentality and the prevailing media narrative. Whether you believe that this shows craven weakness or bold leadership depends on your worldview and where your loyalties lie.

The second major incident sparked riots, looting, and a torrent of hatred and outrage. The universally-condemned and unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after being pinned to the floor by police officer Derek Chauvin took place on 25th May. Conservatives, liberals and almost everyone across (and beyond) the political spectrum condemned this instance of police brutality. But from there, narratives and courses of action diverged.

On the one hand, there are calls for law and order to prevail, for justice to be done, and for peace – whether peaceful protesting or other meaningful action. At the other end of the spectrum, anarchic looting and violent protests carried out by the likes of Antifa, the militant left-wing movement. Meanwhile, the middle ground is flooded by virtue-signalling.

Our 52/48 nation will continue to be divided, and social media will play an increasing role as a catalyst, stoking the fires of anger and hatred, and deepening our societal fractures. Even something as innocuous as a blog about whether we need ‘Pride Month’ by young, gay Conservative activist Darren Grimes provoked a furore. “I find it utterly depressing that the pride flag now takes pride of place in our national life over our own national flag” he wrote for Conservative Home. Rather than welcoming debate and the free exchange of ideas, he was pilloried on Twitter, rebutted by PinkNews, and the post was ‘cancelled’ by Facebook.

Free speech is vital for democracy. When social media platforms behave more like publishers, exercising censorship and editorial control, they need to be treated as such. Digital acts of ‘no platforming’ such as ‘temporarily restricting’ Twitter parody account @TitaniaMcGrath, smack of censorship and conscious mass manipulation. This is what the founding father of public relations, Edward Bernays might have called “the engineering of consent”.

Identity politics is here to stay. Tribalism is getting deeper. Truth (and underlying trust in our institutions) is more evasive than ever. That’s why professional communications, precise language and persuasive discourse are needed now more than ever. In the court of public opinion, the most powerful arguments will win. Let’s hope that democracy, decency and common sense prevail.

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This piece was written for our website.

A lockdown readathon

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

I’ve been badgering folks to read more during the lockdown and decided to document them here (c.6,800 pages so far). The only sequence to the below is the order in which I finished them. This list combines non-fiction and fiction titles as well as political and non-political genres.

For consistency, all links direct to publisher sites or Amazon. For availability, check with your independent bookseller before online retailers. Publisher information relates to the copies I own.

1. The MAGA Doctrine: The Only Ideas That Will Win the Future by Charlie Kirk

HarperCollins | 2020 | Hardback | 256 pages            

Love him or loathe him, Donald J. Trump is the 45th President of the US; but, how did we end up here? Turning Point USA’s founder-president sets out the ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) stall – the movement that brought Trump to the White House – and how he intends to win a second term (clue: ‘Keep America Great’ is the new slogan).

Rating: 3 out of 5.

2. National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell & Matthew Goodwin

Penguin | 2018 | Paperback | 384 pages

Professor Goodwin brought up ‘national populism’ – the 21st century conundrum, including MAGA, that’s challenging mainstream politics – at the Conservatives in Communications Spring 2020 Reception. This text goes further – beyond lazy stereotypes of Brexit and Trump supporters – and looks at what is next: will Matteo Salvini become the next Prime Minister of Italy?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

3. Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

Atlantic | 2009 | Paperback | 256 pages

Set in 1980s Italy – in fact, the film was directed about an hour from Salvini’s hometown of Milan – this real page-turner centres on the blossoming relationship between an intellectually precocious and curious teenager, Elio, and a visiting scholar, Oliver. It chronicles their short, summer romance and the 20 years that follow, which is developed in the sequel ‘Find Me’.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

4. Find Me by André Aciman

Faber & Faber | 2019 | Hardback | 272 pages

Billed as the sequel to ‘Call Me by Your Name’, this novel focuses on three romances: that of Elio’s father and a younger woman, called Miranda; that of Elio and an older man, called Michel; and that of Elio and yes, Oliver. If you discovered the former, you should definitely read this; though a word of warning – manage your expectations.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

5. The Gatekeeper by Kate Fall

HarperCollins | 2020 | Hardback | 272 pages

The Baroness was at the heart of David Cameron’s administration for over a decade. As one of the former prime minister’s most trusted advisors (deputy chief of staff), this is a must-read for any past, current and wannabe media or policy SpAd; it is full to the brim with snippets of information, including several new revelations.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

6. Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us by Donald Trump, Jr.

Center Street | 2019 | Hardback | 304 pages

This is a wide-ranging and colourful book – think Boris Johnson and Jeremy Clarkson on speed – that covers everything from his childhood to the present day and beyond. If you’ve seen some of his posts or follow Donald Trump, Jr. on social media and you’re (i) a conservative – you will love it, but if you’re (ii) anything else – I can’t really guarantee your reaction.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

7. Friends, Voters, Countrymen: Jottings on the Stump by Boris Johnson

HarperCollins | 2002 | Paperback | 288 pages

Like ‘The Gatekeeper’ – albeit early on in his career – this memoir, of his campaign to become the MP for Henley and endorsed by Jeremy Paxman, is essential reading for any Tory candidate. It is both educational and entertaining, and reflective of his personal style for The Telegraph and The Spectator, including phrases that are now synonymous with him.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

8. The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam by Douglas Murray

Bloomsbury | 2018 | Paperback | 384 pages

The Literary Review is spot on here: “Disagree passionately if you will, but you won’t regret reading it.” The author dares to tread where others have avoided like the plague – focusing on three traditionally sensitive topics – however, in my opinion, he does it all rather well; although, perhaps, it could have been written with half as many words.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

9. Seventy Two Virgins by Boris Johnson

HarperCollins | 2005 | Paperback | 336 pages

Now shadow arts minister, this was his first novel to be published, thereby making him the third novelist – after Disraeli and Churchill – to become prime minister. POTUS is set to address both Houses of Parliament and there’s an Islamist terrorist plot to assassinate him – Roger Barlow, a hapless backbench MP (hapless like the book), aims to foil the attack to distract from a scandal.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

10. Matteo Salvini: Italy, Europe and the New Right by Alessandro Franzi & Alessandro Madron

goWare | 2019 | Paperback | 104 pages

This is a map that seeks to answer one simple question: who is Matteo Salvini, really? As both vice-prime minister and minister of the interior (in 2018) the number of non-European illegal immigrants to land in Italy fell by 100,000, and – if current polls are to be believed and his digital and media strategy is anything to go by – he is on course to become their next prime minister.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

11. Have I Got Views for You by Boris Johnson

HarperCollins | 2008 | Paperback | 448 pages            

Published just after he was elected as Mayor of London (first term), this is an anthology of some of his best articles for the Daily Telegraph – such as observations on British society and foreign affairs (including China) – coupled with several new hits. As with both ‘Friends, Voters, Countrymen’ and ‘The Churchill Factor’, this is educational, entertaining and easy to read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

12. Positive Populism: Revolutionary Ideas to Rebuild Economic Security, Family, and Community in America by Steve Hilton

Penguin | 2018 | Hardback | 240 pages

Along with another Steve (Bannon) and Dominic Cummings, Hilton is one of the political mavericks of our age. Here – in a similar vein to his ‘Invitation to Join the Government of Britain’ (Conservative Party 2010 manifesto) – he begins with an ‘invitation for you to participate in the next revolution’ and puts forward interesting ideas on the economy, society and government.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

13. The Dream of Rome by Boris Johnson

HarperCollins | 2007 | Paperback | 304 pages

Now shadow education minister, here, he discusses how the Roman Empire achieved political and cultural unity in Europe, and compares it to the failure of the European Union to do the same. Not usually one for historical books, this is both an authoritative and amusing study – with plenty of lessons for all of us – and I read it in a few sittings.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

14. The Wages of Spin by Bernard Ingham

John Murray | 2003 | Hardback | 272 pages

This week marks over three decades since Britain elected its first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Sir Bernard’s a journalist and former civil servant, who served as the Iron Lady’s chief press secretary throughout her time in No10. We hear first-hand (and slowly) how spin-doctoring developed, from the man who is wrongly attributed with its invention.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

15. Campus Battlefield: How Conservatives Can Win the Battle on Campus and Why It Matters by Charlie Kirk

Post Hill Press | 2018 | Hardback | 160 pages

I’d read mixed reviews about this, but purchased a copy, since I enjoyed ‘The MAGA Doctrine’ and wanted to see whether Charlie’s experiences resonated with my own young conservative days. Bit pricey, considering how short the text is; however, there’s good intention and some decent content – if you ignore the partisan approach, marketing pitch and re-printings of his tweets!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

16. My Fellow Prisoners by Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Penguin | 2014 | Paperback | 96 pages

Described by The Economist as “the Kremlin’s leading critic-in-exile” (after eight years inside he now resides in London), this is a selection of brilliantly written essays about the author’s first hand accounts of prison life and the people he encountered. It is a clever and quick read, and more people should be made aware of it.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

17. Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos

Dangerous | 2017 | Hardback | 232 pages

Akin to ‘Campus Battlefield’, I’d heard mixed reviews and all of the drama around its release just made me want to read it more. The reality, in my opinion, is that the contents of the book, while certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, are far less controversial than its publication (even boring in parts) – conservatives will largely agree with his message while liberals will largely disagree.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

18. The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

Penguin | 2017 | Paperback | 160 pages

The celebrated artist and media personality Grayson Perry explores masculinity. In short, I think it is well written (and illustrated) – although it took me a while to get into it; however, I didn’t feel there was anything new and therefore, at best, it’s a conversation starter (perhaps that alone might be considered a success?)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

19. Michael Gove: A Man in a Hurry by Owen Bennett

Biteback | 2019 | Hardback | 432 pages

Ignoring the endless typos (I have never spotted so many typos in one book – did anyone proof it?), I really enjoyed reading this biography. The author successfully combines old and fresh information to tell us the story about one of the most recognisable and central characters in British politics today.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

20. Celsius 7/7 by Michael Gove

Weidenfeld & Nicolson | 2006 | Hardback | 160 pages

I only learned about this text having read Owen Bennett’s book on the man (see above), but glad I did. In writing ‘Celsius 7/7’, which describes how the West’s policy of appeasement has provoked yet more fundamentalist terror, Gove names both Dominic Cummings and Douglas Murray among those whose conversations and ideas helped shape his thinking.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

21. First Confession: A Sort of Memoir by Chris Patten

Penguin | 2017 | Hardback | 320 pages

A man who’s been there at pivotal moments: Chairman of the Party (winning the 1992 election, but losing his own Bath seat), the last Governor of Hong Kong, Chairman of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland (pursuant to the Good Friday Agreement) and Chairman of the BBC Trust (when the Jimmy Savile scandal broke). Absolutely captivating.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

22. Party Games by Fiona Cuthbertson

Blossom Spring | 2020 | Paperback | 316 pages

Fiona’s first novel addresses love and corruption in the seat of power – from a female perspective. However, for anyone – of either sex, who has worked in Parliament or on Whitehall, I believe they will enjoy this – and perhaps associate with some of the content – and look forward to her second book, which is in the works.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

23. Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America by Donald J. Trump

Simon & Schuster | 2016 | Paperback | 208 pages

I didn’t read this in 2016, however I decided to now since he’s seeking re-election. In a similar vein to ‘The MAGA Doctrine’, you get a better feel what the 45th President of the US does and doesn’t believe, but this time you get to judge him on his record in office as well as in business. I wonder if Boris has read it too (“get it done” p.123 and “shovel-ready projects” p.165)?

Rating: 3 out of 5.

24. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Penguin | 1994 | Paperback | 256 pages

A friend of mine bought this for my 18th birthday (I’m not sure what she was hinting at) and, though I’ve watched the 2019 film adaptation, I’ve never got round to reading this gift – until now, during lockdown. Another book I wish I’d read earlier as the writing is beautiful and I’ve a lot to learn.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

25. One Minute to Ten: Cameron, Miliband and Clegg. Three Men, One Ambition and the Price of Power by Dan Hodges

Penguin | 2016 | Paperback | 384 pages

I’m a fan of Dan Hodges, so it wasn’t a difficult choice to pick-up a copy of this book (in 2016), but what was difficult is the first chapter, which I still think is waffle (I decided to give it another go four years later). Get past that first chapter though and it takes off – a smart and unique account of the 2015 general election campaign and the three party leaders.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Let’s be optimistic

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

I’m not an overly religious person, however I respect our Christian heritage and identity. While we pause to think about the 250 people killed and hundreds more wounded by suicide bombers in Sri Lanka last Easter, this weekend is generally considered a happy time for Christians – as they believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that his resurrection symbolises that death is not the end. On this Maundy Thursday / National Winston Churchill Day / my birthday – during what is an unusual period in our nation’s history – I urge everyone reading this blog, whether you’re a believer or not, to reflect on this holy message of hope and to inject a bit of optimism into your outlook. As I’ve written countless times before: although optimism isn’t everything – it can make one hell of a difference.

Last summer – or BC (before Coronavirus), more than half of all Tory MPs and two-thirds of Conservative Party members voted for Boris Johnson during the leadership contest. In December, the electorate voted in one Conservative MP for each day of the calendar year. People roundly rejected ‘Project Fear’ and bought into Mr Johnson’s optimistic vision – to ‘get Brexit done’ and focus on the people’s priorities. He’s already delivered on the former and is working on the rest, such as controlling immigration, which is why – four months on – polling finds ratings that have not been seen for a British prime minister since the early days of Blair’s premiership.

Now that he is feeling under the weather – but improving, I reckon we owe it to ourselves to reject ‘Virus Fear’ and to cheer him on. While everyone can do their bit, some have additional responsibilities.

In my opinion, publishers, editors and journalists have a responsibility to educate and entertain. Now, every time someone tunes into the news, logs onto Twitter or picks up a newspaper, all they see is ongoing news about the number of deaths as well as who and how many people have been tested, and whether the heir to the throne is a priority (the answer is: yes); comparisons with other countries; talk about designated survivors; lessons about the UK constitution or lack thereof; speculation about caretaker leaders; and yes, plenty of codswallop from Piers Morgan. I understand that news channels have airtime and newspapers have column inches to fill but there must be a limit.

Further, for many people (politicians, their aides and PRs included), working from home during the lockdown presents an opportunity to spend more time talking to loved ones, friends and family, albeit by Zoom, Houseparty or whatever is the tool the whiz-kids have concocted. I say: embrace it!

Go for a walk and discover something new about your local area. Plan that big vacation to Greece and get into shape for it. I, for one, long for downing a pint of pale ale outside a traditional pub on a hot August day and sipping white wine by the swimming pool in Tuscany. Follow what’s going on with other populist campaigns around the globe, including President Trump vs the former VP Joe Biden – now that Bernie Sanders has finally dropped out – as well as growing support for both Matteo Salvini and the Brothers of Italy as more and more Italians become disillusioned with the EU’s response to managing Covid-19.

And finally, (start or) keep reading. For books, try ‘The Churchill Factor’ by you know who or ‘The Gatekeeper’ by Baroness Fall. For newspapers, it must be The Daily Telegraph and The Yorkshire Post (by the way, do continue to buy them and support the industry). For magazines, try The Spectator and British GQ. And online, try alternative media such as Spiked and Politicalite. Before you know it, we will be back to normal and you’ll be complaining about not making the most of this time and weather.

Every death is tragic, and everything must be done to prevent more, flatten the curve and move forward. It’s why everyone must adhere to the government’s advice: to ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives’, because, together, we can get through this – and, this summer, we’ll raise a glass to those loved ones we lost before their time and say Cheers! to our future.

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by The Commentator (‘Let’s be optimistic!’ – April 8, 2020) and Politicalite (‘Despite Coronavirus, let’s be optimistic this Easter’ – April 9, 2020).

10 considerations for this decade

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

Last week, I caught-up with Andrew Marshall, vice-chairman of Cognito – a City-based consultancy, which took a chance and gave me my first (paid) PR job over 10 years ago. As I approached their offices I was greeted by one Charlie Morrow, who, in turn, was my first ever hire. Turns out I’m pretty good at spotting talent! It’s great to see them doing so well.

Over coffees, Andrew and I exchanged a couple of stories and ideas. He is entirely to blame for me writing this blog about 10 PR things to consider in 2020 and beyond. I don’t intend for this to be an exhaustive list, rather a download on what’s front of mind. I’m sure other Conservatives in Communications will have their views. So, here goes – in no order:

1. Purposeful communications

What is the point in what you’re saying? We should ask that every time. People receive many communications – too many in fact – so relevance is key to influence.

2. Data-driven

There is an abundance of data out there and PR professionals should tap it to create hyper-focused campaigns that reach specifically targeted audiences. 

3. Digital-savvy

It’s 2020. Get with the programme. If your PR person or agency doesn’t ‘get’ social media, switch them. In addition, social media should be in the mix not an afterthought. 

4. Authentic voice

With the rise of populist politics and digital – think Trump, Boris and Salvini etc. – people expect to hear from others – not firms – about what they’re thinking and in real-time. Try it with your senior executives.

5. Human emotion

With technology playing a bigger role, we must be mindful of retaining that ‘human element’ in all communications.

6. Story telling

Like social media, if your communications people can’t string a sentence together then don’t hire them; they’ll only disappoint you in the long run. 

7. Audio-visual

Where investment should be made is in training communications people to use more audiovisual, including photos or videos, as these are just if not more powerful than the written word.

8. Specialist skills

Those who demonstrate a deep understanding of their clients’ requirements will succeed. For me, it must be boutique firm over big agency every time.

9. Team collaboration

Integrated marketing and communications are essential to deliver results for your stakeholders. It’s bonkers it’s taken this long for some to realise.

10. Top table

PR, like public affairs, is integral to the bottom line. It warrants a seat – and a separate one – at the top table e.g. CMO or Director of Communications.

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This piece was written for our website.

BoJo will give Britain back its mojo

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

After celebrating last week’s success, I’ve started to think about what we can expect to see in the new year.

On Thursday, the people spoke loud and clear. They chose to place their trust in the Prime Minister, the Conservative & Unionist Party and its parliamentary spokespeople throughout the UK – to deliver Brexit and move forward, so that we can focus on other priorities. In short, a sense of pride and identity was restored.

Boris Johnson’s government, or ‘The People’s Government’ as he now labels it, won exactly 365 seats – an MP for every day of the year and a stonking majority of 80 at that – making this the best result for the centre-right party in over thirty years. In fact, the gain of 47 is the highest of any Tory administration ever, including Margaret Thatcher’s win in 1983. Since 2010, the Conservatives have increased their share of the popular vote from 36% to 44%. They have a legitimate mandate to govern and, thankfully, the ability to break the log-jam in Parliament.

Personally, I’m encouraged to see so much talent – many of them Conservatives in Communications in former lives – take their seats on the green benches: Alex Stafford (Rother Valley), Nickie Aiken (Cities of London & Westminster), Paul Bristow (Peterborough), Paul Holmes (Eastleigh), Richard Holden (North West Durham) and Theo Clarke (Stafford). I hope, and expect, to see more talent re-/join in the future, specifically in Scotland and the capital.

Put it another way, the electorate let the loony left – led by the Hamas and Hezbollah supporting socialist Jeremy Corbyn – know exactly what they thought of their policies. Momentum’s most stunning achievement? Getting Northern ex-miners to trudge through winter rain to vote Conservative. Working class Britons have firmly taken back control; Blue Collar Conservatism is steaming ahead. 

The Tories ran a disciplined campaign. As expected, polling analysis, social media and audiovisuals took centre stage again. Credit to the folks at Hanbury Strategy, Topham Guerin and Westminster Digital for playing their part. In terms of messaging, ‘Long Term Economic Plan’ was replaced with ‘Get Brexit Done’. But unlike in 2017, when Theresa May misread the mood, Mr Johnson stood outside Number 10 and urged the 100% – Leavers and Remainers alike – “to find closure and let the healing begin”. Congratulations to the national campaign team, including Isaac Levido, Lee Cain and Rob Oxley. 

On Saturday, the Prime Minister travelled to Tony Blair’s former constituency, Sedgefield, and gleefully declared “We’re going to recover our national self-confidence, our mojo, our self-belief, and we’re going to do things differently and better as a country”. On Sunday, Lord Heseltine admitted he and others – including People’s Vote campaigners – had lost and dismissed the prospect of them fighting on. 

And how did Corbyn and his allies react to all of this? Faiza Shaheen, who stood against Iain Duncan Smith, looked distraught at the count in Chingford and Wood Green. Owen Jones and Ash Sarkar (commentators and activists), who dominated Labour’s narrative, had a meltdown on TV – again! Lily Allen even deleted her account on Twitter. Many of them joined the violent and extremist, some say terrorist, group, Antifa, in protesting outside Downing Street – like they did outside Buckingham Palace during President Trump’s most recent visit – before revealing their support for Angela Rayner, Dawn Butler, Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer and Richard Burgon as potential future leaders.

Meanwhile, its current leader – who refuses to go or take responsibility for the outcome – wrote a rather misguided piece for The Observer: ‘We won the argument, but I regret we didn’t convert that into a majority for change.’ Let me be clear. 1. No you didn’t. 2. You don’t say. Caroline Flint, had she not lost her seat, Lisa Nandy or Yvette Cooper would be more effective at the helm. However, if I had to place a bet on it right now, I reckon members will back Rebecca Wrong-Daily. Sorry, Rebecca Long-Bailey.

Regarding press, I want to revisit a theme that I’ve previously highlighted. That, people are quickly losing faith in the mainstream media. Is it any wonder when the BBC mismanaged the TV leadership debates, Channel 4 showed its bias and Sky chose to pay John Bercow £60,000 to be its guest despite only mustering an audience of 45,700? Yes, it was somewhat amusing to watch him squirm as the results were announced but get a grip! Expect the new Culture Secretary to make the BBC licence fee a top issue. If Channel 4 doesn’t return to the old days and if Sky fails to see the error of its ways, then also expect the electorate to turn towards alternative media.  

A while back I argued that we need to redefine our purpose, move forward with our global partners, unite the UK – and defeat Corbynism. I believe we have achieved that. World and party leaders, including Scott Morrison and Matteo Salvini, were queueing round the block to congratulate Mr Johnson on his achievement.

This week, he should focus on delivering the Queen’s Speech and bringing back the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). Get that out of the way and deliver the January 31 promise. After Christmas, he can concentrate on lowering taxes and investing in public services while at the same time launching debates about controlling immigration and more besides.

Before the campaign got underway, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan tweeted: “The Tories thought calling a winter election would stop us campaigning. They were wrong.” I responded: “No, they thought the people deserved a Parliament that would represent them. Londoners deserve a mayor who will champion them. Next year, they get their say.” 2020 is going to be a year like no other. Fasten your seatbelts, folks – you’re in for a wild ride.

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (‘BoJo will give Britain back its mojo’ – December 16, 2019).

Red wall, blue sea

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications

In the end, it wasn’t even close. The polls had showed Labour closing the gap in the final few days of the campaign, but there was no surge. Soufflés really don’t rise twice, and the ‘magic grandpa’ had lost his sparkle.

The CCHQ team had always wanted this to be an election focused on Brexit, and they largely got their way. But it was not just about the principle of Brexit itself. Most people wanted Brexit out of the headlines and off of the front pages, but they also wanted the normal functioning of government to resume. 

But perhaps even more important was the issue of trust. If you promise not to raise tuition fees and then treble them, as the Liberal Democrats did in 2010, then you get hammered. If you stand on a manifesto to respect the result of the EU referendum, as both Labour and the Lib Dems did in 2017, and then you constantly seek to block Brexit, then you get hammered.

The fact that much of the discontent with the non-delivery of Brexit was concentrated in the neglected Labour heartlands of the Midlands and the North acted as a double whammy. People in those regions wanted Brexit delivered, but they had originally voted for Brexit because they felt neglected by Westminster, and ignored by the Labour Party. So like Trump supporters in the ’fly over’ states of the US they refused to change their minds, and they demanded to be heard.

There was also poor targeting on the part of Labour. Both the party machine and the parallel Momentum organisation concentrated their resources on Corbynista candidates, rather than on those who most needed support. This cost them unity, and it cost them votes, and it cost them seats. The fall-out from this will rumble on for months, if not years.

By contrast CCHQ did a great job. When it came to strategy Isaac Levido provided calm, whilst Dominic Cummings – as ever – provided inspiration. The cyber war was master-minded by two young kiwis, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin. Meantime the mainstream media was effectively marshalled by Lee Cain and Rob Oxley and a team of experienced press officers, many of whom had worked for Boris on and off over the years since his first mayoral bid.

But the main reason Labour lost and we won was because of the respective leaders. Boris came across as a dynamic leader with a strong focus and clear priorities – including, of course, getting Brexit done. Of course there were mis-steps, including pocketing a journalists phone and escaping in to a walk-in fridge. But generally Boris came across well, with his trademark good humour and with his bright young politically-engaged partner by his side. Parading Dilyn the rescue dog also worked well – an estimated 9.9 million households in the UK own a dog.

By contrast Jeremy Corbyn came across as old, tired, testy, petulant – and (more importantly) nasty. He may not be an anti-semite himself, but he certainly seems to enjoy the company of people who are. This cost him votes not just in the handful of seats with large Jewish populations, but also amongst the wider electorate, who hate discrimination and loathe bullies.

So, the fabled ‘red wall’ has crumbled, and it has been replaced by a ‘blue sea’. And let’s face it, seas are stronger and more durable than walls. Now the task – fully recognised by CCHQ and Number Ten – is to justify the faith placed in us by all those former Labour supporters who loaned us their votes in order to ‘get Brexit done’, and to keep Corbyn out of Number Ten.

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This piece was written for our website.

Language matters – get Brexit done and dusted

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

For some sections of society, politicians and journalists are among the least trusted professions. While my experiences are largely positive, I understand that frustration. I believe that the UK’s decision to leave the EU presents both with the ideal opportunity to repair that trust by delivering and reporting on the popular point of view.

There are exceptions to every rule and US president Donald J. Trump, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Italian hopeful Matteo Salvini are them. They understand that the populist and what they see as patriotic PoV demands that politicians place stronger emphasis on national security as well as unique culture and identity, including their respective countries’ Christian heritage. By putting America first, returning sovereignty – by delivering on Brexit, and having sought to control immigration from the Mediterranean Sea – Trump, Johnson and Salvini are, and were, seeking to deliver on the ‘will of the people’. 

I highlight Salvini here (despite his very recent and perhaps temporary exit from Government) as I learned more about him while touring Tuscany and Umbria earlier this year. Yes, to want to move forward – beyond our relationship with the EU – doesn’t equate to being anti-European. I am in no doubt that Brits will continue to holiday, live and work in Europe long after October 31st.

These politicians are increasingly leveraging rallies, social media and alternative channels to push out messages and communicate with their electorates. They’re not doing this to simply keep-up with the changing times but because people are losing faith in the mainstream media.

There have been several occasions where the accuracy and impartiality of some reporting has been called into question such as the coverage of the recent Tory leadership contest and this week’s debate in the House of Commons chamber. I very much support press freedom but would encourage journalists to be extra prudent. As Alastair Stewart tweeted: ‘It becomes increasingly difficult for the public to get their heads around what is happening in our politics if supposedly independent TV reporters keep giving us their views rather than the facts.’ Andrew Marr responded with: ‘Analysis fine, hard questions essential, but our views? Not wanted on voyage.’ I agree with both. In short, the momentum wasn’t behind Rory Stewart, and the loony left, including Labour’s John McDonnell, have said much worse.

Looking ahead, perhaps a general election will present another opportunity for both journalists and politicians alike to fix this disconnect and yes, move forward. Let’s get Brexit done and dusted – instead of further debate and delay – and take the fight to Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan.

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This piece was written for Politicalite (September 29, 2019). It was syndicated on BrexitCentral (September 29, 2019).