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17 May 2019

239: What the Tory leadership contest means for public affairs

The ‘news’ that Theresa May will soon be agreeing the timetable for her departure will have shocked few people. Despite her best efforts, the PM’s time in office has been drawing to a close for some time. But what does the contest that will take place mean for public affairs?

The process to find a new leader is already ongoing and has been ever since Mrs May first announced that she would go after the first stage of Brexit was complete. Whatever Ministers say on Newsnight, there is a vacancy and it is already being fought over. Just look at how widely Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and others are ranging during their speeches. Any semblance of sticking to their own brief has already gone.

There is no doubt that the battle could get brutal and some of the tensions that have been bubbling away for some time could come to the surface, especially during the early knock-out rounds when the MPs whittle the extensive cast list down to two for the members to have their choice.

Looking at the polls then Boris Johnson looks favourite, particularly, amongst Tory party members. But this does not guarantee success as he has to get down to the last two in the first place…

But what should those in public affairs be looking out for during the election contest?

  • The statements – this is really at the heart of what our main concern should be, what are the candidates saying? Some of the candidates will speak more than others and we all know that one issue will feature a lot more heavily than anything else. But all the candidates will want to show that there is life beyond Brexit and that they have a plan for winning the next General Election, whenever that arrives. Mrs May never got much of a chance to do this and is arguably one of her biggest failures. The next leader will not want to make the same mistake.
  • Ready to react? Some candidates may say outrageous things simply to get some coverage and profile. There is a danger that such statements could impact you. Just look at the problems faced by ITV over the Jeremy Kyle Show even this week and the widespread comment from politicians that was generated. The decision will then be whether to respond, and how, during a time of heightened political interest. There may be a tendency to ‘stay out of politics’ and whilst that is generally a good approach, the issue and reputational damage could be so large and, most importantly, long lasting, that a clear and definitive response is called for. But it is best to prepare for such scenarios in advance.
  • The friends and allies – if the last contest taught us anything then it is that the friendships made by the eventual winner during a campaign can be long lasting. Chris Grayling, for instance, appears to owe his continued ministerial position to having run May’s leadership campaign. As a Minister, in various departments, his performance has come in for a fair amount of ‘scrutiny’ and criticism. So look at those around the candidates as well as the candidates themselves.
  • Not all about the winner – few of those taking part in the leadership election genuinely expect to win. Instead, they are trying to make a name for themselves and have control over a number of votes that they can then ‘award’ to others as the field shrinks. Those who do well and ‘help’ the eventual winner will doubtless end up in the Cabinet.
  • Keeping clients informed – clients, whether they are internal or external, will want to know exactly what is going on and that means getting the monitoring systems in place – particularly across the media and social media. We all need to be paying close attention!

For all of us that love politics, the coming weeks will be fascinating and entertaining. The European elections, followed by the widely expected defeat of Withdrawal Bill and then onto a leadership campaign. And that’s all before a possible General Election and the Brexit deadline of the 31 October.

No-one in public affairs should expect a quiet summer.

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