Screaming blue murder

The Conservative leadership contest and the impact on public affairs

By James Boyd-Wallis

 The race to replace Boris Johnson and become the next leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister has officially started with the candidates handing in their nomination papers yesterday. 

Already Westminster has become a hotbed of hostile briefings, and the contest is shaping up to be the most viciously fought in recent history. 

With two months to go until the Conservative Party announces a new leader on 5 September, it will be tempting for public affairs professionals to become distracted by the psychodrama as the contest unfolds.

However, while the minutiae may be interesting for some, it doesn’t constitute insight for those organisations looking to build relationships or change legislation. 

So, what’s the impact of the leadership contest on those trying to inform and influence Westminster and Whitehall? How can PA professionals ensure their priorities are not lost during the uncertainty? 

A halt to proceedings 

The immediate impact is clear. Government decision-making is coming to a grinding halt making public affairs much harder. 
As David Boot, head of public affairs at the National Oceanography Centre, explains: “legislation planned will be delayed and policies may be dropped. Nothing is certain.”
Max Sugarman, Chair of the CIPR Public Affairs Group, agrees: “there will be several weeks of a caretaker government where ministers won’t feel empowered to make decisions. Many will be distracted by the contest.”

Opportunities and threats

Looking at the longer term, the election of a new Prime Minister will create two results, providing opportunities and threats for PA professionals. 
First, we “could see a big shift in the whole direction of the government,” says Max Sugarman. While policy making may slow down, the wide range of candidates is “prompting debate on policy and the future of the UK.” Just look at how tax cuts are already dominating discussions. 
Second, “the change of personnel means organisations need to re-evaluate existing relationships, which could be positive or negative,” argues David Boot. A new leader might promote a supportive backbencher with whom one has built a strong relationship – helping better represent a client’s or organisation’s priorities in government. Alternatively, a new PM may demote or sack such an advocate entirely. 

So, what should consultants do now?

Now is the time to plan while maintaining a calm and considered view. 

“Evaluate your stakeholder map and be ready to update it fundamentally,” advises David Boot. Consultants should “consider what the candidates think about your issues, and for the big political ones, the targeting of candidates for public confirmation of support is also an option.”

Moreover, David recommends “mapping out the coming six months and the link to new engagement and relationship-building. Use the time to sharpen priorities and key messages in preparation for briefing new ministers.”

Max Sugarman also recommends consultants consider the wider policy-making community. “There will be a tendency to focus only on the Conservative Party over the next few months, but things will be carrying on as usual for devolved parliaments and other political parties. And whilst a general election is a couple of years away, there is no time like the present for preparing,” he adds. 

Beware big promises 

Given the stakes, it will be a lively contest with years of internal Conservative Party tensions bursting into view. 

So, consultants should be wary of leadership hopefuls who promise the moon to win over the party faithful. Not every political position will become a credible policy.  

But Max Sugarman concludes: “at their best, public affairs professionals take a complex political environment and explain it succinctly, with clear insights for organisations to act on.” 

On that, we can all agree.