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.

A lockdown readathon

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications

Having badgered folks to read more books during the lockdowns, I decided to practice what I was preaching and also to make a note of everything I got through (all 36 – circa 11,000 pages). 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. Book 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 advisers (Deputy Chief of Staff), this is a must-read for any 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 isn’t elegant prose, but it’s 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 follow him on social media and you’re (i) right-leaning – 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: 2.5 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 No.10. 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 those of either sex and who have worked in Parliament or on Whitehall will enjoy this – and perhaps associate with some of the content. I 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 (see “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 (usually) a fan of Dan Hodges’ writing, so it wasn’t a difficult choice to pick-up a copy of this book (in 2016). Then, I couldn’t get beyond the first chapter. Four years later, I still struggled with it but persevered and I’m glad that I did as it takes off – a smart and unique account of the 2015 general election campaign and the three party leaders.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

26. Why Can’t We All Just Get Along… Shout Less. Listen More. by Iain Dale

HarperCollins | 2020 | Hardback | 304 pages

Great read. I’m not just saying that because we both studied at “the very left-wing” University of East Anglia, worked/ interned for the staunch right-winger David Davis MP, nor was his chief of staff/ backed him until the leadership hustings in Cambridgeshire… This is “part-memoir, part-polemic about the state of public discourse in Britain and the world today”, and it’s spot on.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

27. Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman

Penguin | 2012 | Hardback | 384 pages

This is a tale about News Corporation and the corruption of Britain, according to the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and active member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. My reading this happens to coincide with the BBC airing a new three-part documentary series ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’. Both excellent.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

28. First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy by David Broder

Verso | 2020 | Hardback | 192 pages

Similar to Franzi and Madron’s book ‘Matteo Salvini: Italy, Europe and the New Right’ (as above), this is a forensic, educational read – written by a left-wing author – especially for non-Italians who want to understand what has been happening in Italy these past three decades. It’s a shame it took until three quarters of the way through to get to the important bit!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

29. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

Picador | 2005 | Paperback | 512 pages

It’s a classic novel about class, politics and sexuality in Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Britain. Similar to ‘One Minute to Ten’, I struggled with the very early chapters and put it back on the shelf. I picked it up again this summer and made headway. I’m glad I did because it’s quite excellent and clearly deserving of its awards.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

30. The Spirit of London by Boris Johnson

HarperCollins | 2012 | Paperback | 448 pages

Like ‘The Dream of Rome’ this is an interesting and entertaining history of the British capital. This updated version of ‘Johnson’s Life of London’ – which focuses on some very famous figures and some rather obscure ones – includes material following the Jubilee and Olympic celebrations in 2012. I hope the Spirit of the United Kingdom shines through in his CPC20 speech.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

31. Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking by Ben Wright

Duckworth Overlook | 2017 | Paperback | 368 pages

One of the BBC’s political correspondents, Ben Wright, explores the history of alcohol in global politics, including a section titled ‘Party Time’. I confess that I was one of the “tight-suited delegates from Conservative Future” in the Midland Hotel he refers to (p.215). I found this witty and informative. Another one that all aspiring politicians should read and take note of.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

32. The Art of the Deal by Donald J. Trump with Tony Schwartz

Penguin | 2016 | Paperback | 384 pages

Ghost written by Tony Schwartz, this is a part memoir, part business-advice book and part auto-hagiography – President Donald J. Trump has referred to it as one of his proudest accomplishments and his second-favourite book after the Bible (which he has clearly never read!) It gives readers insight into how he works and the motivations behind the current man sitting in the Oval Office.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

33. Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power by Sasha Swire

Little, Brown | 2020 | Hardback | 544 pages

I think The Times perfectly describes this one: A gossipy, amusing, opinionated account of what it’s like to be married to an MP [Sir Hugo Swire KCMG]… Good fun and eye-opening.”  I can’t remember enjoying a book so much for a long time – an absolute must-read; it is well written and wonderfully indiscreet about senior politicians – friends and foes alike – over the past decade.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

34. Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire

Bodley Head | 2020 | Hardback | 384 pages

For any political junkie, this is a fascinating account of the tragic-comedy that defined the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn MP and it should serve as a warning to all future political movements. Britain really deserves an effective Opposition to hold the Government to account; the question is whether Sir Keir Starmer MP can turn things around – my sense is partially, but not by enough.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

35. The Political Animal: An Anatomy by Jeremy Paxman

Penguin | 2003 | Paperback | 352 pages

What makes politicians tick? Like ‘Friends, Voters, Countrymen’ and ‘The Gatekeeper’ I’d consider this essential reading for all, not just Tory, candidates. I also learned about another fact for my Churchill vs Johnson comparison: When Sir Winston took over from Neville Chamberlain in 1940, he inherited an 81-seat majority – equal to that achieved by No.10’s current tenant in 2019.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

36. The Unmaking of the President 2016: How FBI Director James Comey Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency by Lanny J. Davis

Scribner | 2018 | Hardback | 240 pages

The author argues that former FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress – sent just before the 2016 US Presidential election – was a significant determining factor in Donald J. Trump’s win. Hillary Clinton was decisively ahead of him in many polls and, more importantly, in the key battleground states – that can’t be disputed; however, there were many factors at play here.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Mental health in Lockdown Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was written for The Telegraph.

When should business take a stance?

PRCA Corporate Group event hosted by Adam Honeysett-Watts | Wednesday, December 2, 2020 | 4:15-5:00pm

Pandemics aside, 2020 has been a tumultuous year politically and ideologically. Brexit has never been far from the headlines, racial justice demonstrators have swelled streets across the globe, and public debate has become ever-more polarised on issues from vaccinations to lockdown freedoms to trans rights.

In October, the BBC introduced new guidelines that prohibited journalists from attending ‘controversial’ events such as marches or demonstrations. Insiders have since confirmed that Pride events and Black Lives Matter marches would likely be included in this directive. In September, the CEO of crypto exchange Coinbase, Brian Armstrong, released a statement explaining that his company did not take a stance on political or societal issues, as it distracts from their business focus, and offered staff who disagreed with this position the option to take voluntary redundancy (an offer 5% of their workforce has since accepted).

These episodes raise interesting challenges for corporate communications professionals. With so many polarising issues on the news pages this year, when and how should your organisation take a stance? When does a matter of principle become a matter for business? With inclusive employment practices now higher on corporate agendas, executives must acknowledge space within their organisations for people from across the political, ideological and religious spectrums. Taking a stance risks alienating some, but taking no stance at all brings with it the potential for even bigger issues, as Coinbase and the BBC are finding.

In this virtual event – to mark the re-launch of the PRCA Corporate Group – we will explore how corporate communications pros can help their organisations to identify when to take a stand, how to remain authentic and how to navigate the potential risks and benefits.

Time to double-down on digital infrastructure

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

“In these exceptional times, the most precious commodity is confidence. Government has a golden opportunity with the National Infrastructure Strategy to set out an ambitious but deliverable plan for the nation’s economic infrastructure.”  

James Heath, National Infrastructure Commission CEO, commenting earlier this month is right. The coronavirus pandemic has not only presented the Government with a “golden opportunity” to deliver on its ambitious commitment to delivering gigabit-capable broadband across the country by 2025 and 5G by 2027, but it has brought the unprecedented need to deliver on it.  

By focusing on these core manifesto promises, the Government would do well to use the National Infrastructure Strategy later this autumn to double-down on its efforts to deliver the urgent digital infrastructure improvements needed across the UK. This renewed effort would play an instrumental role in supporting the economic recovery of the UK, and for the worst affected regions such as the North, Yorkshire and the Midlands.   

Covid-19 and the accelerated demand for “levelling-up”  

Even before the pandemic and the shift to working-from-home, improving digital connectivity in the North and the Midlands was crucial to the Government’s chances of “levelling-up” the country. 

There is a host of evidence – not least in the articles published by Digital Tories – which shows the direct benefits that would be felt by regions across the UK from the delivery of improved digital connectivity. Enhanced levels of productivity, greater economic activity and more employment opportunities are just three. 

Furthermore, enhanced digital connectivity delivers wider socio-economic benefits too, such as the opportunity for remote healthcare services, real-time data sharing and a greater scope for the use of artificial intelligence. However, for some parts of the country, simply getting decent broadband coverage was a challenge throughout the lockdown.  

Several ‘Blue Collar Conservative’ MPs have called on the Government to scrap its plans for HS2 (considering the pandemic) and have made the case that in order to truly deliver on the levelling-up agenda, delivering high speed broadband should take precedence.  

Figures from the New Economics Foundation show that 40 percent of HS2’s benefits would flow to workers commuting to London, with only 18-10 percent going to workers in the North and the Midlands. The Government should consider re-prioritising the money, energy and attention from projects like HS2 and spend it on speeding up the delivery of digital infrastructure.  

Supporting economic recovery 

Delivering on its ambitious targets for the rollout of 5G and gigabit-capable broadband would be a great way for the Government to support the UK’s economic recovery; delivering economic output, capital investment and greater job opportunities are some of the benefits that would be materialised across the whole country.   

A recent report published by the Centre for Policy Studies found that a faster rollout of 5G infrastructure “would help deliver a quicker and stronger economic recovery for the UK.” The report supports the argument that the delivery of 5G across the country would significantly help the UK’s economic recovery, by generating £34.1bn in economic output if the Government meets its ambitious target of doing so by 2027. This is more pronounced in the long-term, whereby the access to digital services and reliable connectivity – that has been essential to the country’s response to Covid-19 – will be integral to the resilience, economic security and productivity of our four regions.  

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs; the characteristics of large digital infrastructure projects – such as their long-term nature, their complexity and often their interdependence – means the rollout of 5G and of gigabit-capable broadband offer significant opportunities for job creation in the face of record unemployment. A report by WPI Economics estimates that the rollout of 5G will create over 600,000 jobs in the UK by 2030, with potentially even greater productivity benefits being materialised in the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom.  

The challenges facing the country are epic in scale; the Government’s interventions and policy measures to support the economy have been historic in nature. It is therefore reasonable to call for an unprecedented and unwavering focus on digital infrastructure delivery. While there is a myriad of technical, regulatory and political reasons behind the delays to the rollout of 5G and gigabit-capable broadband, the coronavirus pandemic should not, and cannot be one of them. 

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This piece was written for Digital Tories

We live in different times

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications and Founder & Director of do Different.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had to do different; and that ability to adapt has never been more important. I was born, went to school and – for all intents and purposes – spent most of my teenage years in Beverley, a market town in East Yorkshire famed for its Minster, Westwood and racecourse. I consider myself to be a Beverlonian.  

With my parents passing away when I was quite young, and my sister at university on the other side of the Pennines, I had to grow up quickly living on my own.  

I recall a handful of conversations with my Dad – him telling me never to forget my roots, and that if I put the hours in it would pay off in the end. Heeding that good advice, I read plenty of books, got my GCSEs and worked every weekend. 

Somewhere along the way I developed an interest in politics. I later learned my great uncle, Arthur Watts of Watts Bros. hauliers, was Mayor of Beverley (1939 – 43). As I write this, a model of one of those trucks sits proudly on my desk.  

During sixth form, I chose to study politics at night college and my enthusiasm grew stronger. With A-levels under my belt, I secured a place at UEA and off to Norwich I went.   

It’s well-known that ‘People in Norfolk do things different.’ We’d get along handsomely during those three years, and I’m forever grateful for the opportunities and experiences that I had.  

Fast forward 13 more and I’ve had the honour of working on behalf of a variety of organisations based around the world. Today, I’m following the trend of launching a UK-based start-up during lockdown; a business that does things… differently. 

It’s time to do different

But it’s not just about me; for we live in different times and we must all do different. 

Before Christmas, I wrote: “2020 is going to be a year like no other. Fasten your seatbelts, folks – you’re in for a wild ride.” I meant the UK could move forward after years of Parliamentary stalemate and the Government could focus on levelling-up the country. 

However, nobody knew what was around the corner. 

Much of what’s taken place over the past six months has been in the works for a while. What’s happened is the pandemic has accelerated the rate at which governments, organisations and individuals alike were already adapting to new expectations. 

You could argue that there’s been – apologies in advance to all PRs and journalists – a turning point, a sea change or as one politician cited: a paradigm shift.  

Even when we find a vaccine, I doubt we’ll return to our old ways of working and living; a lot has happened. We’ve become accustomed to new habits and norms, and become more resilient. 

But with all this change – for example, how we work, how we spend and how we consume information – there is a renewed emphasis on businesses to understand the landscape in which they operate and the world in which their stakeholders now live, while ensuring they continue to stand out from the crowd. 

In this regard, people need partners who get the big picture, get what needs to be done and can get stuff done. That’s me. 

Only then, can you sit down and join our American friends across the pond in sipping a delicious cup of Yorkshire Tea – sales of which have soared 926% – as they stock up to see through the presidential campaign.  

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This piece was written for Adam’s company website.

London – this is Basingstoke calling

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

What many people anticipated has happened. J.P. Morgan, an international bank with 16,000 employees based in the UK – spread across Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Bournemouth and Basingstoke – has made a call on how it will be organised in the post Covid-19 world. Working from home, at least part of the time, is going to be a “more or less permanent” feature of their model. The “rotational model” will see JPM bankers working “one week a month from home, or two days a week from home, or two weeks a month”, depending on the type of business.

I’m a former employee, so perhaps I tend to place too much value on what the bank says. However, I don’t think anyone can deny the firm is a leader with serious heavyweight thinkers at the very top. Who would you prefer to be in The White House – Donald J. Trump or Jamie Dimon?

This news came out on the same day as a BBC report about 50 UK businesses. None – not even one – is planning a full-scale return to pre-pandemic office staffing levels. Simon Jack, BBC Business Editor, called city-centres an “ecosystem” like a coral reef. It’s a good analogy. And he called the situation a cardiac arrest rather than a process of evolution. It’s also being reported that London’s West End is still only operating at 13% of pre Covid-19 lockdown levels. The national level for other cities is 17%. This heart-breaking quote from The Times sums it up: Andrea Oriani wonders if the sandwich bar that he owns in Leadenhall Market will exist come next year. “The City has died,” he said. “We closed in March, thinking it would be a couple of weeks, and didn’t reopen until early July.” In the first week back he took £400. Compare that with a normal £10,000. Last Thursday he took £240 in a day.

I don’t know anyone who expects any sort of return to normality this year. A friend who lives in Kennington says the neighbourhood is busy with people working from home and, in the evening, pubs and restaurants are thriving. Moorgate, just five tube stops away, is empty. Inflexion-point is an over-used phrase, but this is surely where we’re at. Public transport and the catering/ hospitality segments that solely rely on office workers in the City and West End are in a death spiral. Tragically, I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done.

Are there any positives? Well, yes. Discussing the situation with friends who, like me, haven’t set foot in central London for six months we bemoaned the loss of many things. Office banter, gossip, meeting friends from overseas offices etc., we yearn for a sense of community. Working remotely may well be efficient, however, it can also be soulless at times.

I live in Church Crookham, Hampshire. It’s in the Hart district, which is regularly voted as the best place to live in the country. It didn’t earn its reputation because of its restaurant diversity. My neighbours seem to have an unquenchable appetite for either Italian or Indian food. America may run on Dunkin Donuts – around here it’s pizza and chicken tikka masala. The only standout is our excellent Nepalese restaurants – a legacy of the Gurkha Regiment formerly being based here. We don’t have any Japanese, Lebanese or even Mexican restaurants.

So, my passion for exploring new cuisines has in the past been partly sated by the London food-truck scene. At my old office near Liverpool Street station, we were quite spoilt for choice. Thursday night events at Spitalfields Market were enormous fun too. I’ve even watched open-air salsa dancing while eating spicy Argentinian Empanadas and drinking beer brewed in Rotherhithe. You can’t do that on a Zoom call…

I have a suggestion. Perhaps J.P. Morgan could organise a food-truck event in the car park at their office in Basingstoke? If we can’t or won’t go to London, then they must come to us. Family members tell me that Milton Keynes (where 30,000 people are estimated to be WFH instead of commuting) and mill houses in Sheffield would love some food diversity. Looking forward to it.

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This piece was written for our website.

Just what is now ‘normal’?

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

One of the best managers I’ve worked for used to allocate an hour per day for informal thinking and reflection – sometimes he did it alone while other times he chewed the fat with his colleagues in a completely unstructured way. During my professional career, I’ve seen and heard many people confuse activity with productivity. Further, a friend who works in a managerial capacity in the education sector told me that, at the onset of the lockdown, his boss immediately organised seven hours of Zoom calls for his team. That’s not seven hours in total – that’s seven hours every, single, day. He didn’t allow any time for pre-meeting preparation or post-meeting execution – let alone time to think and reflect. The boss, who is the CEO, clearly doesn’t trust his team to do the right thing. Unsurprisingly, his team doesn’t feel comfortable and they are exhausted from being in an artificial meeting environment almost all day, every day.

It will take a while to paint an accurate picture – but, perhaps in a year’s time, we’ll be able to look back and say who had a good or a bad lockdown. The phrase “(s)he had a good war” is little heard nowadays, however, it was commonplace when I was growing up. The example I remember best is Denis Healey, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer and a potential prime minister during the tumultuous mid-seventies. At the beginning of the Second World War, he was a lowly gunner and five years later left the army as a major with an MBE. He was decorated for his bravery for being in charge of the Allied beach landing at Anzio, Italy. And he spoke fluent Italian due to a number of local girlfriends… By most interpretations, he had a good war!

I’ve been keeping a diary since the pandemic first emerged. The most often-cited issue is the NHS. Has it had a good war? My view is that it’s a nuanced answer. With 1.4 million staff and an annual budget of £130 billion it really can’t be looked at as a single cohesive entity. It consumes about 10% of our national GDP. No other entity, public or private sector, comes remotely close.

Some elements of the NHS are in the “could do better” category. NHS logistics failed in the early stages of the pandemic, the provision of PPE was chaotic and it certainly didn’t communicate effectively. At the 2019 General Election, Comrade Corbyn tried to scare us into thinking that the NHS would be sold to US firms. Thankfully, the public wasn’t fooled by this nonsense – but, it does raise the issue of whether it’s an unwelcome idea. Who would you prefer to run the NHS supply chain: NHS bureaucrats with limited international capability and no plan for a pandemic or global logistics wizards with state-of-the-art technology at Amazon? Don’t get me started about NHSX – did they really think they are better at developing apps than Apple or Google? The heroic efforts of our hospital doctors and nurses can’t be allowed to bury these issues.

We are closest to GP services. A recent claim by Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson – that GP surgeries may not re-open until March 2021 – prompted a flurry of responses from doctors who claim to be working just “normally”. NHS England medical director for primary care, Dr Nikki Kanani, said: “General practice is open and has been throughout the pandemic. Whilst consultations may have been offered remotely or virtually to keep patients and staff safe, our practices have been open and offering care.” This is not my experience.

I’m 58 and consider myself fairly digitally savvy. I’m completely OK with telephone and video consultations. For me, in most circumstances, they’re better than face-to-face meetings. I also have a number of close relatives in their eighties with chronic long-term conditions. Most of these people have trouble operating a TV remote control – let alone a WhatsApp video-call on a smartphone. Very few of them actually own or have access to a smartphone! Many have some level of hearing loss, which an aid doesn’t appear to compensate for on the telephone.

Not all old people are technophobes, however it is a prevalent issue. I know old folks who still think the phone is really only for emergencies. A story on the BBC PM show recently highlighted that some old people still prefer to make calls in the afternoon because it’s cheaper than in the morning. (Note for younger readers: this used to be true in the 1980’s). One elderly chap said he only switches on his mobile phone when he wants to make a call. 

GP surgeries closed their doors in mid-March and have only recently started a cautious re-opening programme. Before Covid-19 there were about 26 million GP appointments per month. If you’re elderly the only way you know how to communicate with a doctor is by meeting them in-person. When you meet a doctor, they will routinely assess your body language, your pallor and your general demeanour. How can they do this over the phone? Doctors are expert at listening to what you say and reading between the lines. Many of my elderly relatives will be more honest in the privacy of a doctor’s consultation room than in their own home. They are not accustomed to intimate, private conversations via telephone. The conversation is likely to be a lot more stilted and therefore less productive.

Speaking recently at a meeting of the Royal College of Physicians, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘From now on, all consultations should be tele-consultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to’. My local GP website says: “You cannot book a face to face GP appointment. Following telephone consultation you may be asked by the GP to attend.” Only 10% of consultations now physically take place. This is a radical change – and hasn’t been properly justified, as far as I can tell. Plus, how much consultation on the issue has been conducted?

Medical professionals need to be protected – but, at what cost? My local authority has an infection rate (in the week to August 21) of 2.1 per 100,000 people. That equated to two people … The physical closure of GP surgeries may have been sensible at the peak of the pandemic, however things have moved on, surely? The medical establishment is very good at pumping out statistics about the number of virtual consultations it’s done. But, have they measured the effectiveness and patient satisfaction recently? It would be good to know. Perhaps it’s time they both thought and reflected.

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This piece was written for our website.

Social housing must be part of building plans to help boost the economy

Aisha Vance-Cuthbert is Co-Director of Conservatives in Communications and Head of Communications at a large housing association

This morning, in Dudley, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will unveil his taskforce ‘Project Speed’ – chaired by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak – aimed at accelerating building and infrastructure projects to get the UK economy moving again as we slowly emerge from lockdown.

This move is welcomed by the construction industry, and those who are both directly and indirectly employed by the sector. However, what we need – in addition to schools, infrastructure and market sale / rent homes – are new social homes for the millions of people who are currently in expensive, temporary and often poor-quality accommodation.

The Government has already signalled that it understands and wants to solve the housing and homelessness crisis, which go hand-in-hand. For example, only last week, the Government announced an extra £105 million in funding to help keep rough sleepers off the streets.

The trouble is, as noble as this sounds, most councils have depleted the cash because of the lack of available social housing. For the most part, the only available option is to place people in expensive nightly-paid accommodation, hotels or bed and breakfasts. And this is exactly why the Government must invest in high quality social homes – to help tackle rough sleeping, solve the housing crisis and save the taxpayer millions.

There’s also a ‘levelling up’ argument. After the general election, I wrote an article for The Times Red Box on why building more social housing would reward millions of voters along the Red Wall. The Conservatives ‘borrowed’ millions of votes from Labour, giving them a significant, working majority.

Specifically, I highlighted a YouGov poll of undecided voters carried out on behalf of the National Housing Federation. It found that 80% of ‘Labour Leavers’ worry about their housing costs. It also found that housing matters more to ‘Labour Leavers’ than crime. In fact, they signalled that housing is the fourth most important issue after Brexit, the NHS and immigration.

I welcome the Government’s ambition to re-boot the economy; creating local jobs and supporting our public services. But, I hope that it will also include building more affordable homes. Building homes – of all tenures – will help kick-start the economy while, at the same time, protecting our public finances.

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This piece was written for our website.

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

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at 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).