Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
Politics is about more than just policies. They need to add up to something that is greater than the individual components: a narrative. A narrative is much more than ‘spin’. Spin is an attempt to react to, or drive, news. A narrative should set out what the Government is trying to achieve, why it is trying to achieve it, and how it is trying to achieve it.
To take an example of a politician whom no-one could describe as just spin, Margaret Thatcher had a narrative. She argued that militant and undemocratic trade unions were damaging the working class and raising inflation. She would empower ordinary union members and stand up to the militants. She set out that this would take time and sometimes require more conflict than many people wanted. Narratives are not just the tools of those who think politics is a game – they are deadly serious and necessary if you want to achieve real change.
A narrative is not just a news story. In the long run, a narrative has to link to policy and results or else it will always come unstuck. An example of a failed narrative was the pledge to bring immigration down to the ‘tens of thousands’. We were told this was going to boost the economy and was possible without hitting the high-skilled, easily-integrated migrants we want. The failure to achieve this goal harmed the Conservatives, and gave an opportunity to UKIP and the Leave campaigns to claim that immigration could not be controlled without leaving the EU (which the Government could not rebut without conceding they were not serious about the promise in the first place).
Narratives need to have an emotional power
The National Insurance row was a prime example of a missing narrative – and how an emotional backlash can derail a particular policy. Had Philip Hammond tried to rationalise National Insurance more consistently, setting out that the world of employment was changing, and that there would be a balanced package of rights and tax changes to treat the self-employed and employed equally – essentially making it a question of fairness – the policy might have squeezed through. You might disagree with the fairness narrative (I’d argue that lots of self-employed people would rather have less rights and lower taxes) but it would work better than coming across as a smash and grab afterthought that seemed deaf to a core Conservative constituency.
The National Insurance row was also a reminder that narratives need to have emotional power. Most polling showed that the National Insurance rise was initially broadly supported. But it hit the self-employed, a key demographic for the Conservatives, and the backlash began because the narrative was unclear. The emotional pull of certain goals run through the Conservative party – for good and bad – and they need to be understood. The self-employed, voluntary institutions including the family, home ownership, a vague feeling for the English vernacular – particularly the countryside – all these are part of the strength of the Conservative party and they can rarely be abandoned. The best way to remove or abandon one of these goals is to pit one against another.
After all, the left has its own powerful emotional narratives too – and will always be prepared to use them whenever and wherever possible – both among politicians with a capital ‘P’ and those who tilt to the left in academia, journalism, even business or charities. The tragic death of someone trying to enter Europe illegally can be effectively used to try to force through policies on open borders without thinking through the consequences or issues that this can bring.
May’s foreign narrative is currently stronger than her domestic narrative
The risk is that Theresa May’s overarching domestic narrative, which she repeated at the Conservative Spring Forum, is rather weak in terms of concrete policies and so risks coming unstuck as Brexit forces out everything else. Her foreign policy narrative – that she supports an international order of interlinked nations but with greater individual sovereignty rather than multilateral bodies – is clear, with tangible policies attached. May remains committed to the UK’s targets on defence and overseas aid alongside Britain’s exit from the multilateral bodies of the European Union. It adds up to a coherent whole. Her domestic agenda, on the other hand, is rather nebulous and even where policies make sense they have often not been sold as well as they could. If you asked Conservative voters to set out what she is going to do domestically, and why, and how, then I suspect few could answer beyond her commitment to grammar schools.
May needs her Cabinet to help build her narrative
Narratives are necessary for good policy making because they do not just delineate what is politically possible or not, but because by setting out where the Government wants to go, it sends a clear signal that impacts people’s behaviour. This cuts in both directions – people won’t always want to go where Government is pushing. So then you either need to decide to retreat or look at sanctions, or try to get new people onto the stage to do what you want.
But those narratives can also encourage and strengthen behaviours that the Government wants to encourage and can discourage behaviour much more comprehensively than individual policies can – although of course people are not always honest with government. Similarly, such narratives make it easier for good and honest civil servants to do their job because they know their objectives, although we must not ignore the fact some civil servants will try to obstruct or actively block their minister’s ideas if they disagree with the narrative.
Given that May is going to be heavily focused on Brexit, she needs to rely on her ministers to create their own narratives to fit within her own over-arching narrative. This will need her ministers to step up. Narratives are not the friend of the lazy or less than competent minister. If a Cabinet minister doesn’t understand the narrative and focus they are driving forward, then things will get difficult pretty quickly. Each and every decision they make will impact on the narrative, and they should hold the narrative at the back of their head accordingly. There is always a narrative – even if it is as simple as confusion and drift or indecision. We will see in the next year whether or not the Cabinet is going to be able to deliver what is needed.