New No 10 policy board provides fresh opportunities for lobbyists

A radical shake-up in government policy creation could create 'a new way of shaping thinking within Number 10' for lobbyists.

Policy lead: Jo Johnson, centre left, is heading the new board
Policy lead: Jo Johnson, centre left, is heading the new board

Public affairs practitioners are anticipating fresh opportunities following the appointment of Conservative MP Jo Johnson, brother of London Mayor Boris Johnson, to head the Number 10 policy unit and the creation of a new policy board staffed entirely by Conservative MPs.

The move is seen as a bid to inject politics into an area that has recently been led by civil servants, and preparing the way for generating manifesto ideas ahead of the 2015 general election.

Policy Exchange's director of comms Nick Faith argued that the board would give lobbyists a new way of engaging with early-stage policy formation. He cited Johnson's work in expanding aviation capacity as an example of the growing influence of constituency matters and personal areas of interest within high-level policy formation. 'The creation of the board gives a new way into shaping thinking within Number 10, and will bring a new local slant to national lobbying,' said Faith.

Johnson replaces civil servant Paul Kirby in the role and heads the board, which will include Tory strategist Steve Hilton, who went on sabbatical to the US a year ago.

An ex-parliamentary private secretary to the Secretary of State for Business and Enterprise, Johnson is seen as a pro-business figure, with one well-connected figure calling him 'sympathetic to the corporate world'.

Katie Perrior, co-founder of InHouse Communications, pointed to the newness of the board members as offering opportunities for lobbying: 'The group will want to show it has engaged with the issues and has a part to play in them.'

The news also forms part of wider efforts to 'decouple' the Conservatives from their coalition bedfellows, with one Tory insider emphasising the importance of Number 10 forging 'stronger links' with backbenchers.

Another well-connected source said Lynton Crosby, brought in to aid a Tory general election win, would have had to have approved the plans so close to the 2015 election.

However, Chris McLaughlin, vice-president of external affairs for satellite company Inmarsat, warned: 'The danger for the policy board is that it becomes an outlet for talking and nothing more - if the departmental minister doesn't back the idea, it won't go anywhere.'

Eustice hails the return of Tory strategist Hilton

Conservative MP and policy board member George Eustice has welcomed strategist Steve Hilton's return to UK politics and called for lobbyists to change their ways.

Hilton is understood to be attending board meetings on a monthly basis, his first formalised engagement with the party since moving to the US last spring. Known as a bold and controversial thinker, Hilton departed amid rumours he had grown frustrated with policy development.

Eustice, a former press secretary to David Cameron, praised Hilton's 'creative flair', adding it was 'great to have his input'. Eustice described the board as a way of 'using all the talent' within the party and giving a 'political lead' to policy formation.

Discussing the issue of lobbying with regard to policy formation, he called for public affairs practitioners to take formal consultation processes more seriously.

'Formal consultations on emerging policy are often underused and underrated. It's a legitimate point to influence things rather than spending endless time trying to meet a minister. The time would be better spent on a good submission.'

Among others on the board are fellow Tory MPs Jane Ellison, Paul Uppal, Nick Gibb, Margot James and Jake Berry.

How I see it

James Acheson-Gray, UK MD London, APCO

By working behind the scenes and avoiding personal publicity, Johnson has won respect from senior colleagues. A new head of policy at Number 10 certainly signals the possibility of a fresh approach to policy on some key issues and, therefore, perhaps a new opportunity for our clients to engage and renew campaigns.

Lesley McLeod, Director of comms and public affairs, Energy UK

There have always been established methods of communication, and though we are seeing a new board and a new set of personalities, the techniques being deployed by lobbyists are likely to remain the same.

Number of Conservative MPs making up the new policy board*

304 Number of Conservative MPs in Parliament**

84 Potential Labour majority in 2015 in snapshot poll by Lord Ashcroft***

14 Months since Tory strategist Steve Hilton said he was going to the US****

Source: *Conservative Campaign HQ; **Conservatives.com; ***Newstatesman.com; ****BBC.com

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