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20 April 2020

265: And what happens in public affairs post COVID-19?

Politics, parliament, the economy and society have all been changed by the current pandemic. Whilst the pandemic is not over, we should start to think about what some of these changes may mean and what the implications are for public affairs.

Whilst no-one knows what all the implications will be, there is a general recognition, backed-up by some polling numbers, that people don’t really want everything to go back to the way it was before. So there will be changes and we need to consider what they may be.

In public affairs terms, there will be everything from the prospect of more permanent virtual arrangements across parliament, through to HM Treasury’s need to work out how to pay back the massive debt. So all aspects of our engagement, from messages through to methods, are in for a shock.

But in a practical day-to-day sense what are big matters that will change the way that organisations engage with the policy-making process?

  • There will be a period of introspection – once we start to come out the other side of the crisis, there will be some form of public inquiry into its handling. As we have already seen around testing, the availability of protective equipment and the how care homes have been treated, there will be some difficult issues to consider. This may become party political but will be an essential part of ensuring that lessons are learned. Although, it could quickly come to dominate the political debate;
  • No events for a while yet – all those parliamentary events and potentially even roundtables are not going to happen for some time yet. Just take a moment to think about those socially distancing queues outside of parliament! That is to say nothing about the impact on the party conferences which I think, unless something changes radically, will not take place in their usual form this year;
  • The relationship between business and government has changed – as I have written about in more detail elsewhere, the government will expect a greater level of contribution from business. That will, of course, cover tax to help pay for all the support provided, but will also include an expectation that they will help to deliver on the government’s social agenda as well. As David Cameron was fond of saying, ‘we are all in this together’. It will, if you like, be the modern version of Lloyd George’s ‘land fit for heroes’ following WW1;
  • Some campaigners will be very active – in the general review period that will follow the end of the crisis, many organisations will (and should!) use it as an opportunity to push for a new way of doing things. These could be very challenging in some circumstances so businesses especially need to factor in activist challenges to the way they operate across a range of activities – tax, labour relations, climate change etc. This issues may not necessarily be new to them but they will have been given additional impetus, and potentially crucial public support, by the crisis; and
  • Don’t forget Brexit – as far as things stand, Brexit comes to a full conclusion at the end of the year, trade deal or not. Whilst discussions may now be taking place again in a virtual setting both the government and business have some decisions to make about it and is not possible in the timeframe and against the costs to business. The likes of the CBI have already got themselves in trouble with government for being seen as too anti-Brexit but what they will choose to do post COVID-19 on Brexit?

Many of the changes cannot yet be foreseen but all we can do is plan for those we can start to anticipate. So we need to consider the potential risks and opportunities of the post COVID-19 political environment now so that we protect reputations and engage effectively.

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