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”.
There’s something deeply unappealing about the Conservative Party right now. Theresa May is clinging on rather than leading, senior politicians are spinelessly and anonymously briefing against each other instead of saying what they think publicly, every announcement seems to be about mitigating disaster rather than taking the country forward, and many of the party’s senior figures come across as either frightened or miserable. It feels like the back end of John Major’s Government.
The announcement of policies and public comment on the most important issues are the best way to appeal to voters. Too many people in campaigns are dismissive of the power of policy, but policy announcements evoke strong reactions in the electorate and bring to life politicians’ stated values and vision. With this in mind, as I argued last week, the Government needs a policy-based campaign that differentiates the Conservative Party from Labour on areas of comparative advantage.
But spokespeople obviously matter, too – unattractive politicians struggle to sell good policies – and it’s becoming increasingly clear the Government and Party needs a massive refresh. In short, Theresa May needs to promote energetic, bright, optimistic talent into the Cabinet and Ministerial ranks – and she needs to get rid of those that look like they’re obsessed with internal politics or, frankly, that look bored and pedestrian. There are plenty of people that fit into the first category of rising stars and plenty that also fit into the second category of the pointless.
Who should be promoted?
First of all, Dominic Raab should be in the Cabinet. Raab passes the Westminster media test: he can be deployed in any interview with Andrew Neil on the most complex subject matters and come out with an enhanced reputation. But he’s also a politician who can speak directly to the public in their own language. And, crucially for this point in time, he has the air of an optimist that wants to change things for the better.
It’s too early for promotion to ministerial rank, but Kemi Badenoch needs to be given a role within the Party where she can be used more widely. Badenoch is a breath of fresh air; she’s completely straight-talking and un-varnished in the best sense of the term. With her strong Conservative principles, she’s probably not one to be used to appeal to metropolitan AB voters in a Brexit culture war, but she will go down well with the provincial English voters that the Conservatives rely on.
While it’s too early for Badenoch, it’s not too early for Rishi Sunak to be made a minister. While naturally more wonkish than most politicians, he combines an unusually deep interest in policy with huge enthusiasm to get things done – which gives him the air of a political optimist. Amid all the moaning and pessimism at the top of the Party, he’d provide a great contrast.
Neil O’Brien is similarly wonkish but hyper-optimistic and should also be used, like Badenoch, in a public role. He practically invented the concept of the Northern Powerhouse and should be given a role to drive this on to appeal to the Labour-voting, Northern working class.
While George Eustice’s tone and manner are different to Sunak’s, they share a relentless desire for change and a belief it can happen. While Sunak oozes sunny optimism, Eustice has the air of someone that simply can’t understand why things aren’t better. Eustice is also extremely hard-working, on top of his brief and is one of the most under-rated media performers in Government. He never makes a mistake. He should be given the opportunity to run his own department.
Lucy Frazer has quietly and competently gone about her role on the Education Select Committee and has had a relatively low profile in the media, but she should now be considered for a ministerial role. As a former barrister, she is a persuasive advocate but, unusually for former barristers, she doesn’t sound like she’s just walked out of the Oxford Union. In short, she connects.
Finally, Tom Tugendhat deserves a ministerial role. He’s intellectually capable, thoughtful and tough. And, crucially, he’s engaged and interested as well as being engaging and interesting himself.
May is in a difficult position: she needs to keep a lot of people happy at a time when she isn’t strong. It’s unrealistic to imagine that she can run the Cabinet, the Government or indeed the Party in exactly the way she wishes. But she might find that she has more room to change personnel than she might think. She should do us all a favour – and herself in the process – and get rid of those politicians that are dragging the Government and the Party down.