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”.
Downing Street needs to appoint a Director of Strategy – someone to synthesise the intelligence and advice coming from the opinion research staff and the policy advisers, and in turn advise the communications team on how to build a campaign that will anticipate likely challenges and exploit likely opportunities. They need someone whose job it is to look constantly three to six months ahead and who can ultimately ensure that the Government machine can morph into a campaign machine as an election approaches.
Chris Wilkins played this role at Number 10 but since his departure the post has been vacant. At a time when the Government has been fighting daily, brutal wars on everything from the EU budget settlement to allegations about Damian Green’s behaviour, Downing Street has naturally been focused on surviving. It isn’t damning with faint praise to say they’ve done this well. On the contrary, they’ve managed to keep the show on the road in the most challenging of circumstances. The briefing of the Budget and the Industrial Strategy White Paper scored the Government a few political victories when the opposite looked possible, if not likely.
But survival obviously can’t be the Government’s objective. Survation’s poll at the weekend suggesting that Labour now have an eight-point lead over the Conservatives feels off, but little positive is cutting through now. If the Conservatives aren’t losing badly, they certainly aren’t winning. There are no obvious reasons to vote Conservative other than a straight competence choice over Corbyn’s Labour – but there are signs this might not be enough.
While the Budget and the Industrial Strategy White Paper were minor political victories, and while the Budget polled well on the face of it, the Government’s political relaunch that was hoped for and expected over the autumn hasn’t materialised. The public have seen and heard little for many months to help change the way the Party is seen.
Number 10 need to find a way to coordinate their policy and communications activity to tell a story to voters over the next few months. Whichever route they go down – and I won’t bore readers again with my recommendation to focus hard on the provincial English lower middle class and affluent working class – they need to ensure their activities enable them to build a single, positive theme over the coming months that contrasts with Corbyn’s Labour. At the moment, survival, competent as it might be, is producing random activities that don’t amount to more than the sum of their parts.
A Director of Strategy must take control of the Government grid and plot a series of activities designed to reinforce each other and to build this positive narrative. At its crudest, that means clustering activities and announcements on key issues or governing themes that, taken together, tell important truths about the Government and its agenda. Without it, the developing narrative of a Government consumed by Brexit, or indeed obsessed by Brexit, will take an immovable hold on the electorate. This will make it hard for the Conservatives to fight on the necessarily broad front they need to going into the next election.