“I’ll never be neutral on the Union.” Prove it!

GUEST POST: Timothy McLean is a Parliamentary Researcher. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

“I’ll never be neutral on the Union” – the familiar battle cry we hear every time a new Northern Ireland Secretary takes up residence in Stormont House.  It’s time they showed some teeth…  

Boris Johnson is the first British Prime Minister since the Act of Union in 1801 to erect internal trade barriers within the United Kingdom. Which is kind of ironic, considering he is also the first Prime Minister to hold the title of Minister for the Union. In addition, the current office holder, Brandon Lewis – despite mounting evidence to the contrary – denies the existence of any border in the Irish Sea. If the Conservative party wants to be taken seriously on the Union, they must first acknowledge their mistakes and take action to correct them. 

The recent shenanigans that led to the disbandment of the Union unit within No.10 does not inspire confidence. While the political and media focus around the state of the Union tends to focus on Scotland, for obvious reasons, it is the situation which has been imposed on Northern Ireland that presents the biggest challenge to those who have been trusted with the care of our Union. 

Establishing committees to strategise and then implement policies across the Kingdom will not repair the damage to relationships which have been long standing between unionists in Northern Ireland and respective Conservative governments. The Northern Ireland Protocol is just the latest strain in that relationship. Yet the protocol is perhaps the most serious threat to the Union in my lifetime because it undermines the integrity of the internal market and gives succour to the separatists who would much rather align with Brussels than with London.  

Speaking at the DUP Party Conference in late 2018, Boris Johnson said this: 

“If you read the Withdrawal Agreement you can see that we are witnessing the birth of a new country called Ukni. This is how Brussels sees it. Ukni is no longer exclusively ruled by London or Stormont. Ukni is in large part to be ruled by Brussels.” 

Such a firm statement gave us Unionists hope that Northern Ireland’s equal position within the United Kingdom would be assured and protected. For the first time in many decades, Unionists held the balance of power at Westminster and felt like the new Prime Minister understood their concerns. Yet, after one meeting with the Irish Taoiseach, some argue Boris folded and choose political expediency over the well-being of the Union.  

So, how do we fix it? Rebuilding trust is an arduous process, but it is essential if we are to overcome both the external and internal threats to the Union which are gathering momentum. Unionists need to feel their Government in London is on their side and don’t just view them as a drain on resources or a concession that can be handed to Brussels for the benefit of England. 

The creation of a Council for the Union, made up of unionist politicians, civic and community leaders across the Kingdom would be a positive first step. Such a forum, meeting regularly in every nation and region of the UK, would allow Unionists to identify shared concerns and specific problems in each of the four nations. The Minister for the Union could chair the forum. The establishment of an Office for the Union would give it the necessary support structures to operate effectively. 

If the Conservative party is serious about the Union they will act now to remove the barriers which they have erected between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and begin a programme of outreach to rebuild relationships before it’s too late. The clock is ticking. 

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This piece was written for our website.

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.

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This piece was written for City AM.

2021: A review

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, spoke to Matt Honeycombe-Foster at POLITICO about the future of the industry. The image below includes the comments that were used for his article, otherwise you’ll find the full transcript as a blog post.

Do you predict public affairs/comms industry will carry on with bits of the ‘new normal’ even as Covid comes under control?

Much of what’s taken place over the past nine months has been in the works for a while e.g., living healthier, working remotely, shopping online, leveraging technology and thinking digital.  

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, sea change or paradigm shift.  

Even now that we have vaccines, 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.

That aside, we’re a people industry – our successes are built on networking and relationships; we absolutely need that face-to-face time. That’s certainly true for new start-ups like do Different.

I cannot wait to be able to host in-person events for the PRCA Corporate Group and Conservatives in Communications again soon. Zoom fatigue has certainly crept in.

What were the big lessons of 2020 that are likely to stick?  

1) Trust in your people and partners and ignore all talk of presenteeism.

The key to making remote working work is for managers to trust their colleagues. In turn, all colleagues must deliver – at home and in the office. It’s really that simple. Get it right and the benefits can be a-plenty.

And, I believe people have got it right. They have risen to the challenges posed by the country’s response to the pandemic.  

2) Corporate reputation remains king.

While some functions in communications rise and fall in terms of where they are in the pecking order, corporate reputation management consistently remains among, if not at, the top of the league when it comes to what businesses should prioritise in terms of PR.

Yes, digital and internal communications played a critical role throughout the year – and will continue to do so into 2021 – however, it is reputation – the overall perception of an organisation that is held by is external and internal stakeholders (based on its past and current actions as well as its future behaviour) – where the bulk of investment should be targeted.

What are the main political and policy battles you’re watching out for in 2021?

If you thought 2020 was going to be a wild ride wait until 2021.  

The fight against coronavirus will continue, the impact of Brexit – either with or without a deal – will follow closely behind, the new US administration will push a whole different agenda, the Scottish, local and mayoral elections could be quite challenging for many, the Nationalists will continue to push for another independence referendum and all this while unemployment and debt soars.

Senior leaders need public affairs partners to help promote and defend their business interests, but also PR support to build their brands, earn trust, protect reputation and generate new leads. Advocacy and communications have never been more important. Thankfully, practitioners have demonstrated their value.

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Tories should fear Sir Keir – and figure how to beat him

GUEST POST: Peter Cardwell advised four Cabinet ministers in the May and Johnson administrations. He is the author of ‘The Secret Life of Special Advisers’, published on October 27. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

We’ve seen a lot of Keir Starmer this week: a Marr sit-down, a set-piece speech in lieu of a conference speech – in front of a handy physical red wall – and another strong performance at PMQs, understandably leading on test and trace. However, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Keir Starmer’s views. Would he back a future EU trade deal? Is he in favour of extending the transition period? Would he go for another Scottish independence referendum? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But, what I – as a Tory – do know is on a much more fundamental level he scares the living daylights out of me.   

His detoxification of the Labour brand is going just a bit too well. His new phrase “a new leadership” may be bland, however it is not meaningless. Because it is allowing Starmer, very effectively, to distance himself from the three greatest problems which dogged Corbyn: antisemitism, patriotism and security. 

On antisemitism, Starmer came down very hard on Rebecca Long-Bailey in June, sacking the former Shadow Education Secretary after she retweeted an article containing an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Helpfully for Starmer, John McDonnell stood in solidarity with her. Starmer looked decisive, leaderly and even gained praise from the Board of Deputies. 

On patriotism, can you honestly imagine Corbyn reacting to the “Rule, Britannia!” row with a strong defence of the “pomp and pageantry” as “a staple of British summer”? Thought not. 

And on security – Corbyn’s weakest issue – at PMQs three weeks ago Starmer reacted with genuine fury when Boris Johnson suggested Starmer was soft on terrorism because he had backed Corbyn. Starmer’s record as Director of Public Prosecutions speaks for itself, and Labour strategists plan to remind the public often of their leader’s key role in prosecuting the terrorists who planned the Heathrow bomb plot, ‘Britain’s 9/11’. And it’s no accident that Starmer returned to this theme in his leader’s address on Monday. There could hardly be a less Corbyn phrase than expressing a desire for: “security for our nation, our families and all of our communities… We love this country as you do.” 

In fairness, we Conservatives have had it good for so long when it comes to Opposition leaders.  Ed Miliband was a man who couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich effectively, never mind run a country. Jeremy Corbyn was popular with people who didn’t come out to vote and scared away many sensible people who did into voting Conservative. Along with Dominic Cummings and bearded Antipodean svengali Isaac Levido, Corbyn was one of we Conservatives’ three greatest assets in December’s election. 

And despite his lack of charisma, his slightly plodding manner and a front bench a little too full of unknowns, Starmer continues to subtly, slowly put clear red water between himself and his predecessor. This brand detoxification is the hugely important first step. 

So much so that CCHQ attacks on Starmer have been linking him to Corbyn, just as Republicans attack Joe Biden by linking him to the more toxic Hillary Clinton. That’s just not strong enough a strategy, and the Conservative operation will need to work harder. Starmer has certainly got me worried. And that’s why we Conservatives need to start planning how to beat him in 2024 right now. 

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This piece was written for The Times.

Britishness is normal. Unionists should say so

GUEST POST: Fraser Raleigh is an Associate Director at Newington Communications and a former Conservative Special AdviserFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Westminster always wakes up late when it comes to the Union. The alarm is ringing on a constitutional nightmare if the SNP win a majority at next May’s elections to the Scottish parliament.

In 2014, it took a surprising 51-49 poll in favour of Yes just before the independence referendum to stop it sleepwalking into the break-up of the United Kingdom. Since then, Westminster has hit the snooze button time and time again.

In 2015, Scotland sent 56 separatist MPs to Westminster. Unionists sent three. In 2016, the two nations most comfortable in the Union – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU and the two most restive – Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted to remain.

Between 2017 and 2019, the UK government allowed itself to be propped up by the DUP, causing lasting distrust among nationalist and unaligned communities in Northern Ireland. And so in 2020 Britain left the EU with a deal that created a border in the Irish Sea, completing the full house by alienating unionists in Northern Ireland too.

But, with nine months to go before the election in Scotland, Westminster has finally wiped the sleep from its eyes. Just as well, because it will catapult the Union back to the fore of British politics.

The fightback starts with ministerial visits and lots of them. Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove have all been north of the border in recent weeks. The SNP insists that it welcomes the sight of more UK ministers in Scotland, arguing that it pushes wavering voters into the Yes column.

The government must call their bluff. The SNP’s greatest strategic achievement has been using devolution to cast Scotland as inherently separate to the rest of the UK, making independence not just a logical step but crucially a less daunting prospect for uncertain No voters.

While Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are pro-devolution, the SNP are not. Devolution has always been a stepping stone towards independence.

The Scottish government has projected itself as autonomous, developing its own foreign policy through ministerial visits to Brussels, cutting across reserved responsibilities and cultivating its own relationships with allies. For too long UK-wide institutions have played into that narrative: politicians, the civil service and the media.

If Westminster is serious about ensuring the United Kingdom is a coherent, relevant and tangible concept for Scottish voters it must grasp the scale of the challenge ahead of it and change the way it talks about the Union.

Ministers with remits spanning the UK have been too reluctant to project themselves equally across all four nations. The rest have outsourced issues with the “devolved nations” to the overstretched Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices. If ministers are to suddenly rediscover their interest in each nation, they need not just to normalise their visits but to normalise the way they talk about the UK. Clunky, transactional rhetoric about the value of the “precious Union” should be junked for matter-of-fact language that normalises Britishness, with the litmus test that if a minister would not say it in Dudley, they shouldn’t say it in Dundee.

The civil service in London has also been too timid about treading on toes, prioritising good working relationships with colleagues in Cardiff and Edinburgh above the central policy objective of preserving the Union, something our impartial civil service should never be indifferent about. Our cultural institutions have become balkanised, shunting Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish stories to the regional editions while leading UK-wide bulletins with English-only stories that mean little to voters in the rest of the UK.

Opportunities to counter the “otherness” of Westminster are missed by UK politicians, too. Of the dozens of new peers announced this year, only Ruth Davidson and Nigel Dodds were genuine unionist big hitters. No peerage for Carwyn Jones, who spent nearly ten years as first minister of Wales, or concern over Lord Darling’s retirement.

The United Kingdom has almost unrivalled cultural, political and diplomatic tools at its disposal to prevent the disintegration of its own state. It is time it woke-up to the value of those tools. Nationalists won’t be shy about using their own.

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This piece was written for The Times.

Beyond Brexit: unleashing Britain’s potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next – an early general election perhaps?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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