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”.
If the Conservatives have ambitions for a major assault on Northern seats at the next election, posh, southern junior Ministers should worry. For the party will surely be thinking about promoting ambitious telegenic backbenchers from the North. They’ll rightly conclude that such politicians will stand a better chance of resetting the party’s reputation in northern seats they’ve long been locked out of.
To date, Theresa May hasn’t prioritised communications to anything like the same extent as previous Tory leaders. As I wrote last week, Jeremy Corbyn’s extraordinary incompetence has given the Conservatives the incredible luxury of time – and the Government can focus on the job in hand. In a more competitive environment, the communications team would be more integral to the operation (with Brexit, their time will come).
This model of “executive only” Government suggests that the Conservatives will let facts speak for themselves at the next election. Ideally, the industrial strategy will be showing signs of success and immigration will be significantly down – two prerequisites for a Tory advance in the North. But while it’s possible there will be early signs of success, it seems unlikely enough progress will have been made in such a short space of time.
With this in mind, a Conservative Party newly ambitious for northern seats must prioritise campaign communications. Changing the Party’s image by changing some of its spokespeople is an obvious way of doing this.
The reality is many junior Ministers, and certainly those in less important departments are easily expendable. Many junior Ministerial roles are seen primarily as “platform” roles – job titles that give people a position from which they can advocate policies for the Government in public.
Some will question whether deliberately promoting spokespeople from Northern backgrounds will make much difference. After all, the Tories won a majority at the last election with a top team of posh Southerners. For most seats across the country, background is less important than ability (and of course the reflected power of the Prime Minister and Cabinet).
But background – or “identity” – is vital in the post-industrial North which is only now, because of Corbyn, seen as viable. These are seats where people haven’t voted Conservative – or thought of voting Conservative – in the best part of 40 years. It’s possible that some seats will be up for grabs simply because of Corbyn’s appalling leadership. But, more likely, voters in these seats need to be forced to think about the Conservatives in a different way.
There are more than a few Tory MPs that fit the bill. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if the next reshuffle suggests a Conservative Northern Strategy is firmly on the table.