Government sets up partnership unit to drive business comms

Exclusive: Former Tory brand comms chief takes key role in new team

Cabinet Office: new specialist unit
Cabinet Office: new specialist unit

The Government is setting up a specialist unit in the Cabinet Office as part of a major push to improve communications with business.

The ‘partnerships unit’ will seek to co-ordinate relations between Whitehall departments and big brands, paving the way for new marketing and PR tie-ups.

Taking a top role in the new six-strong team is Anna-Maren Ashford, former head of brand comms for the Conservative Party and a close ally of Number 10 strategy director Steve Hilton.

‘Companies are being deluged from a lot of angles and wondering what they’re getting back from it all,’ said one Whitehall source. ‘The partnership unit will improve that dialogue.’

At the same time, David Cameron is said to be considering appointing a director of external relations to fill the ‘vacuum’ in Number 10 left by the departure of highly respected special adviser Geoffrey Norris.

The move follows complaints from lobbyists that relations between business and government have deteriorated since the Conservatives gained power.

‘Geoffrey Norris was like a one-man walking Rolodex of everybody in business,’ acknowledged a Downing Street insider. ‘Everything went through him. There was total clarity; business knew who the one person to pick up the phone to was. It’s not so easy now.’

Bell Pottinger Public Affairs chairman Peter Bingle said: ‘The links between Number 10 and business are nowhere near as good as they were in the Blair years. If you are the chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, there is nobody at Number 10 you can pick up the phone and talk to.’

He added: ‘Previously, any senior business leader with an issue could either speak to Geoffrey Norris or his counterpart in the Treasury, Shriti Vadera. Now BIS [Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] is no longer seen to be pro-business, the Treasury is distant and at Number 10 there is nobody of Geoffrey’s calibre to deal with. There’s a vacuum in Number 10.’

‘It means that links between government and business have been weakened. The relationship is uncertain and there’s a frustration in business about who do you speak to.’

The Cabinet Office confirmed that a ‘partnerships team’ was being established to help deliver the ‘Every Business Commits’ agenda. Ashford was previously based in the Tories' flagship ‘nudge unit’ – or behavioural insight team - working inside the Cabinet Office. Downing Street denied that a new post of external relations director was being created.


PARTNERSHIPS UNIT

  • The new team will sit within the Cabinet Office, comprising six civil servants
  • Running the new unit are Anna-Maren Ashford, former Tory brand comms manager, and Antonia Romeo, a long-serving senior civil servant
  • A further four ‘account directors’ are being recruited to the new team

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