Boris must find the bandwidth to take on Sturgeon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was written for City AM.

What’s in store for 2021?

We asked our team and industry patrons for their opinions.

Katie Perrior is Chair of iNHouse Communications

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

Iain Anderson is Executive Chairman at Cicero/AMO 

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

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications 

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

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

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

Adam wrote a longer piece here.

Aisha Cuthbert is Head of Communications at a large housing association

Aisha wrote a longer piece here.

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

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

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

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

Finley Morris is a Parliamentary Researcher 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was written for our website.