Set Boris free

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

In these strange virtual times, this year’s online party conference has a special importance, not just for the Tory Party but also for the Prime Minister. His speech will help to define the rest of his tenure at Number 10.

I have supported Boris Johnson since his first campaign to become Mayor of London. In a world full of dullness and a body politic stuffed full with the second rate and dull, he was a real breath of fresh air. He discarded political correctness, but crucially exuded optimism and fun. 

I predicted that he would beat Ken on both occasions. It wasn’t hard to do so! Londoners loved this political maverick who made us all smile, chuckle and even laugh out loud. His record at City Hall was superb, thanks to his two great chiefs of staff – Sir Simon Milton and Sir Edward Lister. 

There was no greater supporter of Boris when he announced he was a candidate to succeed the hapless Theresa May. Here was a Tory who could inject zest and optimism into a political party which resembled a corpse. 

My only fear was some of the people advising him. I dismissed those worries, but time has shown that I was quite right to be concerned. 

In the December election, I predicted a majority of eighty and was delighted by the result. Boris could now literally change the political landscape for a generation. A politician who appealed to people from every walk of life. Once again, the Tory Party was a national political force. Our PM was a populist who understood what made normal voters tick. 

However, the problems started long before the pandemic. He chose a weak Cabinet and the Number 10 team, with a few exceptions, makes his predecessors’ team look competent. That is some achievement! The political ramifications are now all too clear. 

Firstly, Boris no longer exudes optimism and confidence. Folk are now starting to laugh at him rather than with him. His attempt to position himself as a modern day Churchill is just plain silly. 

Secondly, Boris no longer seems in control of events. He is a reactive PM who is now defined by an increasing number of U-turns. Boris doesn’t appear to have a grip on what is happening. 

Thirdly, Boris is being let down by a Number 10 team which doesn’t seem to understand the concepts of strategic communications and messaging. The Cabinet is also weak. 

Lastly, I no longer have any idea if the government has a policy agenda. The one exception concerns the increasing role of the state. There has never been such a ‘Big State’ government. This isn’t why people vote Tory …

For all of this, I still have faith in Boris. He needs to show us that he is not only in control but actually still wants to be PM. Then he can start the crucial task of rebuilding and re-energising his special rapport with the British people. 

The first stage is a ministerial cull of epic proportions. There is great talent on the back-benches, which needs to be tapped into. Not just youngsters but also former ministers and people who should have been made ministers in previous governments. 

The second stage is to have a very clear policy agenda which embraces and motivates traditional and new Tory voters. Economic competence must underpin all the government’s future actions but so too must a belief in the primacy of the individual rather than of the state. 

The final and arguably most important stage is to set Boris free. On form, this is a politician like no other. Never have people needed to be cheered up more than now. Boris is the political antidote to the gloom created by the pandemic. His advisers need to play to his strengths. 

The next six months will determine the success or otherwise of the government. We need both inspiration and optimism in equal measure. Boris remains the man to deliver both. Britain needs him. 

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This piece was written for our website.

We’ll meet again – in Busan

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

Hands up who’s heard of Busan? Probably not that many! Until I visited South Korea I hadn’t either. Well, Busan’s a bustling port city with a population of about four million people. Its significance? In addition to its prominence as a thriving business and tourist destination, it’s the country’s alternative capital city.

Seoul is only 50km from the border with the North. The erratic and ruthless regime of Chairman Kim could easily use artillery and missiles to decimate the metropolis. Busan, meanwhile, is 325km from Seoul on the Southern coast. It’s closer to Fukuoka in Japan than it is to the capital, however you can get to Seoul in just two and half hours on their amazing 400kph bullet trains. This makes it a great deal more resilient in the event of an attack from the North Koreans. Many public sector and infrastructure businesses have already co-located their HQ between Seoul and Busan. The local stock market operator, KRX, has its head office in Busan. In short, it’s a viable alternative capital city.

What can we learn from this? I think a lot. If London was engulfed by a catastrophe, would the UK be able to function? Unfortunately, I doubt it. In 1953, the GDP per capita of Korea was $153. Barely measurable. In South Korea, it’s now $32,000 and fast catching up with countries like Italy. The country has rightly been lauded for its response to Covid-19, but, alongside their many other accomplishments, the ability to re-think and behave strategically surely lies at the heart of their long-term success.

When the issue of a post-mortem review of the Government’s response to the pandemic is raised the most frequent response is “now is not the right time”. It took the 9/11 Commission in the US almost two years to produce its final report. With its impact on the whole of our society and its international aspect, the inevitable inquiry could be a similarly long and convoluted affair. If it’s to be concluded and acted upon before the next general election, it needs to get underway.

So, yes, let’s build – however, we should also have a Busan strategy. Here’s a few ideas.

Designate a city as the alternative centre of UK government. The country is hugely over-centralised. London dominates. We need to be more like Germany with its multiple capital cities. Manchester gets my vote. 

Abandon the refurbishment of historic Parliament. Instead, build two new facilities – one in London and one in Manchester. The Palace of Westminster can be re-purposed as a heritage centre. We all agree that it’s a wonderful building, but it’s completely unsuitable as a modern workplace. It’s also the most disabled-unfriendly facility I’ve ever visited. We need a fully digital building optimised for local and remote working. It should be hugely accessible and be as green as possible.

Create The Department of National Resilience. Locate it in Manchester. Its aim should be to design, build and operate a resilience plan for the entire country. Not just the Government – all aspects of society.

Create an NHS Reserve. And model it on the military reserve model. All retired doctors and medical personnel should be enrolled, trained and paid.

Review our unwritten constitution. For a short while, the Prime Minister was gravely ill. It was never clear whether the First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, had taken the throne. If there had been a national emergency while Boris Johnson was in intensive care, how would urgent decision making operate? Who was in charge of the nuclear launch codes during that time?

Mr Johnson’s hero – Sir Winston Churchill – won the war, but lost the subsequent election. Despite the epochal Beveridge Report being issued in 1942 – in the midst of the war – the public didn’t trust the Conservatives to deliver the new society they wanted. I don’t want the same thing to happen once again. With more than four years before another election, there is now an opportunity to win both this battle and the next election. However, we have to start now.

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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 of Conservatives in Communications

It’s been almost a year since members elected Boris Johnson as Leader of the Conservative Party and British Prime Minister, and six months since he won a personal mandate from the country – and a stonking majority at that! How is he performing? This piece looks at some of the highs and lows, as well as the future ahead.

The highs

I deal in facts not fiction, so let’s start with the polls. Last December, the UK returned a Tory-led government for the fourth time in a decade: a 44% share of the vote (14m ballots) won him 365 seats* – a Conservative MP for each day of the Gregorian calendar. Today, according to Politico’s Poll of Polls, public support for the ‘People’s Government’ is holding firm.

What’s he achieved vs what did he guarantee? A week after that seismic result in 2019, the Government published its Queen’s Speech, outlining the ‘People’s Priorities.’ Chief among them was Mr Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done in January” [2020], which he quickly did. Michael Gove recently confirmed that the UK will “neither accept nor seek any extension to the Transition Period.”

“Extra funding for the NHS” has been enshrined in law and the number of new nurses has increased compared to last year.

Over 3,000 of his “20,000 more police” have been recruited and Robert Buckland has brought about “tougher sentences for criminals”, including the most serious terrorist offenders. “An Australian-style points-based system to control immigration”, as part of a much broader Bill, is due to have its report stage and third reading.

It’s true that millions more have been “invested…in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure,” and that good progress – new consultations and plans to increase investment – has been made towards “Reaching Net Zero by 2050.” All this while not raising “the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance.”

The lows

Britain has been transformed by the coronavirus crisis. The number of GP surgery appointments per annum is likely to be down, not up. 310,000 people, including the Prime Minister and Matt Hancock, have tested positive for the disease. Of those, sadly, 43,500 have died – one of the highest figures in the world. It’s inevitable that there will be, and it’s right that – in time – there is, an inquiry. Lessons must be learned.

Because of Covid-19 – and the measures this government has introduced to combat it – UK public debt has “exceeded 100% of GDP for the first time since 1963.”

The death of George Floyd sparked many protests abroad and at home. A minority of people, on both ends of the spectrum, including Antifa, exploited Black Lives Matter, to behave quite irresponsibly. Our politicians have a vital role to play in healing divisions and addressing issues, which is why I – and others – were surprised it took Mr Johnson – the author of a book about his hero – time to speak out.

Number 10’s handling of these events has created a perception – among backbenchers and commentators – that the Prime Minister has misplaced his mojo.

An analysis

So, some clear wins (promises made, promises kept) and some evident challenges, but challenges that can be overcome with a bold and ambitious plan. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

And yet, if you spend your time talking to Londoners, following the mainstream media and scrolling through Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Government was about to collapse at any given moment – that Sir Keir Starmer, by asking a couple of questions each Wednesday and by sacking Rebecca Wrong-Daily, is about to gain 120 seats for Labour. The mountain’s too high to climb.

These are the same people who: predicted Remain would win the Brexit referendum by a landslide, never imagined Donald J. Trump would become US President and thought Jeremy Corbyn might actually win in 2017 (and two years later). The same people who were confident Priti Patel would resign and Dominic Cummings would be fired, and tweet #WhereisBoris on a nearly daily basis.

That said, 44% can be improved upon and regardless of whether there’s any truth in it – perceptions are hard to shake-off. And so, the Government must listen. In particular, No10 must listen to its backbenchers. They are ideally placed to feedback on any disillusionment across the country, before decisions are made. A new liaison between No10 and the Parliamentary Party should be hired.

In my opinion, the appointment would help the Government make sound policy decisions from the get-go and reduce the number of U-turns in the long-run. However, U-turns aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Like subpoenas (writs “commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure”), they needn’t be seen as negative – rather a means of making right.

This government should also listen to experienced conservatives in communications. We recently polled our supporters and they rated its coronavirus communications strategy 3.18 out of 5. While positive, it’s clear improvements can be made. First-up, was phasing out daily press briefings, which I’m glad it has done. I’d also like to see more women MPs around the Cabinet table at the next reshuffle.

What we need to hear from Mr Johnson tomorrow, in Dudley, is how he’s going to help Britain rebuild itself and win again after the lockdown. I hope he makes us feel proud about our identity and culture and that his vision is aspirational and opportunistic. The British people have put their faith in him before – a few for the first time – and I’m sure they’ll continue to keep it, if he listens and acts accordingly.

*Election data

 2010201520172019
Votes (000s)10,70411,30013,63713,966
% of UK vote36.136.842.343.6
Seats won 306 330 317 365
% of seats won47.150.848.856.2

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (June 29, 2020).

The X factor?

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

I’d already made-up my mind – before the leadership election got underway – to back Boris Johnson. After three long years of doom and gloom, I was desperate for someone to tell the Tory story of aspiration and opportunity, and luckily – for everyone – the Party membership agreed.

Before casting my vote, I chose to speed read as much as I could about him. I did this for three reasons: personal intrigue, due diligence and ammunition, because many of my closest political friends were wavering or had chosen to support Jeremy Hunt. It’ll come as no surprise that London conservatives often differ in opinions from those of Tories in Yorkshire and Norfolk…

Among the books that I got through were ‘Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson’ by Andrew Gimson and ‘Just Boris: The Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity’ by Sonia Purnell. Page-turners, yet no earth-shattering revelations inside. Neither of them persuaded me otherwise. Here was a man, determined to make it and full of optimism. I was sold. I also recognise this as a quality and an attitude that several of our new MPs have. Exciting times.

One book I didn’t get to until Christmas was his very own ‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History’. While Gimson and Purnell shed light on his past, here Johnson exposes his admiration for the national treasure and where he may take inspiration in the future. I thoroughly recommend it to Conservatives in Communications.

Churchill and Johnson share more than a few similarities. Both have American ties: one was half American by birth, one was born in New York. Both went to top public schools: one Harrow, one Eton. Both became journalists, writers and politicians; often multi-tasking between all three and using colourful language while doing so! Both developed as orators, having already perfected the written word. Indeed, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his many published works. Both represented multiple constituencies and served in two great offices of state: one as Chancellor of the Exchequer, one as Foreign Secretary. Both refined their images and appealed beyond traditional Conservative voters; championing the working class or blue-collar workers. Both would deploy their good-humoured, self-depricating formula to cheer-up the nation during two turbulent periods: the Second World War and us leaving the European Union.

As I have said before, optimism isn’t everything. A detailed vision must be articulated and executed by a sound team. That happened during the recent campaign and the result provided a mandate. After we’ve left the EU later this month, expect there to be a reshuffle of ministers (hopefully this includes promotions from the 2019 intake) and of others too, if Dominic Cummings gets his way:

With no election for years and huge changes in the digital world, there is a chance and a need to do things very differently… We do not care about trying to ‘control the narrative’ and all that New Labour junk and this government will not be run by ‘comms grid’.”

I’m glad Cummings recognises “We have some extremely able people [in communications]” and is willing to take risks i.e. “we also must upgrade skills across the SpAd network.” If you’ve got the X factor and want to help shape history throughout – what the US Ambassador to the UK calls – the roaring twenties, find out more and apply here.

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This piece was written for our website.