James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Theresa May’s No. 10 have the most politically sophisticated strategy of recent Tory administrations – with a clear plan to dominate the mainstream of British politics.
Their focus on those “just managing” is right and they are addressing areas of historic Tory weakness: urban centres and former industrial heartlands.
In time, we’ll see more policies targeted at their other fundamental weakness – amongst ethnic minorities (no, the last week hasn’t helped).
May’s team will look back on their first period in power with satisfaction. But now they’re through conference and have the opportunity to take stock, they’ll be thinking about how to deal with areas of weakness in the machine.
This is crucial as they seek to execute their ambitious plan. So, what will they be looking at? There are four obvious areas.
The first is Theresa May’s presentation skills. She has some strengths: she looks good, sounds normal and wears power well. But she has neither David Cameron’s ability to dominate the room or studio she speaks in, nor his quickness of feet. She can look nervous and therefore awkward – as she did occasionally in her conference speech.
This might change as she becomes more experienced as PM but – given the scale of No 10’s ambition – I’d ask a donor to put their hands in their pocket for some serious media training. George Osborne clearly sought help and it radically improved his communications skills.
The second issue is that the policy and communications teams obviously aren’t working together well enough at the moment. Policies are being initially briefed with extreme clarity, but nuance is being injected afterwards which looks like they’re rowing back.
This happened with Hinkley Point, Grammars and Foreign Worker lists. The policy teams have to be fully involved in the briefings from start to finish.
The third issue regards their political faces. Given that the Government is looking to own provincial England in its entirety, they could do with some more spokespeople that were brought up in these areas or that represent provincial English seats.
Rishi Sunak, who replaced William Hague in Richmond, should be given a more prominent role. Yorkshire-born Lucy Frazer, who combines high intellect with an ability to talk in ordinary English, is another MP we should hear more from. There are others.
The fourth and final issue is Amber Rudd. The foreign worker list was a bad policy but, to be fair, No 10 will have signed it off. Her problem is more fundamental: she seems arrogant and superior. That’s not ideal but manageable for a junior minister that gets sent on to Newsnight.
But it’s a disaster for a politician in charge of the single most important issue for the public. Her media team are amongst the best around and are well placed to sort this problem out. If Rudd won’t let them, she’ll get moved on.
I’ve repeatedly made the point that a big Europe speech is overdue. That’s still true. If anything finishes May off, it’ll be Europe and the issue is still running away from her. But she’ll also be better placed to deal with this challenge if No. 10 sorts out the issues above.