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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 made a good decision in choosing Robbie Gibb as her new Director of Communications. In his previous role at the BBC, he helped tomake the most complex political and policy issues understandable and digestible for the public – a variation of a role he must play for Number Ten as the prospect of another election looms large. As senior politicians set off for their short breaks, what will he be telling the Prime Minister? Here is an imagined memo:
– – – – – – – – – –
Dear Prime Minister,
in ordinary times, I’d spend the first few months listening and thinking before making hard recommendations for action. I think we both know it’s time to put these conventions to one side; we’ve already entered the campaign for the next election and we’re badly trailing in the polls. Corbyn’s up and you’re down. You hired me to get things done and tell you how I see it. Here goes.
My single most important point is this: start acting like a leader. Your personal poll ratings are terrible (and dropping). Colleagues are leaking against you and some are on manoeuvres against you. We can’t win if the public doesn’t support you personally. If you don’t show serious leadership soon, you’ll be out the door. Only you can get back that swagger you had before the election campaign (you badly need it), but I have four ideas for practical action.
Firstly, take ownership of Brexit. To date, you’ve let David Davis completely run the show. Why?! This is the single most important issue facing the country and you must own it. You ought to be explaining our direction to the European Commission, regularly meeting other European leaders to discuss the parameters of our exit, and introducing our negotiating position in the early talks. Why do you think David Davis’ ratings on ConHome are so high? Because he’s the one that appears to be doing “serious” work. Keep him in place but make it clear it’s your project. If Brexit goes badly, we’re all screwed; there’s no downside.
Secondly, show hard authority over the Cabinet. Your comments at Cabinet last week – making clear they needed to get serious – were a good start. But you ought to consider another reshuffle soon. I don’t know what others have told you but – from my perspective – the last one was a disaster for you: it made you look like you had no power. Get another one planned for the autumn – and, whatever happens, fire the next Cabinet Minister that steps out of line.
Thirdly, crucially, start making some policy announcements. As you’ve admitted, you’re not a born campaigner: you’re an executive, not a performer. With that in mind, let’s forget big speeches, meet-and-greet events and personal interviews – which don’t play to your strengths; and let’s focus on policy – which does. I hear you don’t like policy-making as campaigning? You’re going to have to get out of that mindset; it’s the only way we’re going to be able to establish momentum – and the best way for you to actually appeal to voters. (So let’s commission some polling on what the public actually want to see in this Parliament and let’s craft some policies to deliver them.)
Fourthly, start causing Corbyn more problems in his own party. What frightens Labour politicians most of all? Arguably, the collapse of their traditional working class vote in the Midlands and North. (Caroline Flint’s comments at a recent Policy Exchange event drove this point home). We need some policies ready made for these voters. Ensuring “Brexit means Brexit” is obviously crucial; but there are two additional avenues we should be looking at: amending human rights legislation to stop the abuse of the criminal justice system; and further cracking down on those that refuse work. Crude? Yes, but let’s be realistic.
Fifthly, and finally, find a role for Ruth Davidson. She’s fast developing a high national profile in the media and the party. Because she’s outgoing and conventionally warm, the higher her profile, the more she highlights your stark differences. She’s a rock star: find a role where you can work together and where your skills will be seen as complimentary.
Let’s speak when you get back.