It might not be the most fashionable thing to say in these cynical, spin-conscious times, so whisper it: politics is getting interesting. As the country waits for Tony Blair to carry out his pledge and step down as Prime Minister before the next general election, there are two heirs to his crown already limbering up for the contest ahead.
In the red corner is the 'Iron Chancellor', the longest-serving custodian of the UK economy for two centuries. In the blue corner is a former PR man, who is re-energising the Conservatives after a decade in the doldrums. But while these two heavyweights seem destined to slug it out in public (a soon-to-be anointed Liberal Democrat leader notwithstanding), privately a period of jostling by public affairs professionals is also beginning. The clock is ticking to work out what Gordon Brown and David Cameron actually stand for, and who will listen to their cause.
'Because politics is changing, the public affairs industry also has to change and understand where change will lead,' says Bell Pottinger Public Affairs managing director Peter Bingle. 'We are dealing with Blair but are preparing for Gordon Brown. You have to be ready so that by the time Blair steps down there will be no surprises in policy and style.'
Under David Cameron, the Tories are at last looking like a credible alternative, with recent opinion polls swinging in their favour. Since seeing off David Davis for the leadership ten weeks ago, the ex-Carlton Communications PR chief has shaken off the Tories' image as the 'nasty party', a legacy of Thatcherism, and espoused a more 'compassionate Conservatism'.
His grasp of presentation has been reassuringly impressive, helped no doubt by his stint as chief spokesman for a FTSE-100 company. 'The initial strategy is to change the first instincts of people in their perceptions of the party,' says Gavin Megaw, senior consultant at Fleishman-Hillard, and also a former Conservative Party senior spokesman.
Lobbyists have plenty to get their teeth into with regard to the Tories. An 'ideas revolution' is under way through six policy commissions that report to policy chief Oliver Letwin (see box overleaf). With contributors to these commissions including the likes of Zac Goldsmith (dubbed Cameron's 'green guru') on the environment and Sir Bob Geldof on global poverty, Cameron has tried to strike a chord with disaffected younger people.
As Simon Miller, managing director of APCO UK, suggests: 'Voters want to relate emotionally and engage with their politicians.'
But not everyone has been impressed. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch last month criticised Cameron's 'throwaway positions' in changing the party's image and urged him to present a 'real alternative' to win power. Plenty of party members fear his statements amount to nothing more than a populist lurch towards the centre. It is the job of party chairman Francis Maude – another figure with strong PR credentials through his ties to Huntsworth – to persuade them that these represent real areas for change.
While the policy commissions do not report back for 18-24 months – and with the party under no obligation to accept their findings – they provide a vital opportunity to understand the development of the party's thinking. 'The policy commissions are effectively a consultation exercise,' explains Megaw. He therefore advises contacting them sooner rather than later to set up meetings and receptions, before they start closing policy options down.
Fishburn Hedges Public Affairs MD Graham McMillan says organisations should arm the commissions with facts and figures and 'give a positive view of where policy should be moving rather than stating specific gripes'. He believes businesses that impart their industry knowledge will stand themselves in good stead: 'Parties remember organisations that stayed close and helped them while they were out of power.'
The commissions will need to solve a number of difficult policy conundrums where there is a tension in the party's current stances. For example, the Tories want to encourage more environmentally friendly lifestyles but also be seen as the party of the motorist. They want to cut corporate red tape but have promised 'not just to stand up for big business but stand up to big business'.
Rod Cartwright, chair of the PRCA's public affairs committee and director at Hill & Knowlton, argues: 'As a PR exercise the policy commissions are sound but the jury is out as to whether they can develop a coherent set of policies that goes beyond rhetoric. They will fall to bits unless they provide some substance that holds it together.'
Lexington Communications founder Mike Craven characterises the initial thoughts around the policy groups to be 'thematic rather than detailed', providing 'mood music' and 'echoing concerns' of people who deserted the Tories in 1997.
The intellectual driving force behind many of Cameron's statements is former Saatchi & Saatchi adman Steve Hilton. He set up the consultancy Good Business and is co-author of the seminal CSR book of the same name. Hilton is the influence behind the new Conservative leader's position that businesses have responsibilities as well as being a vehicle for wealth creation.
Cameron's criticism of WHSmith for aggressively pushing cut-price chocolate oranges and his endorsement of Npower's green energy product 'Juice' has propelled CSR back onto the mainstream agenda.
But his emphasis on responsibilities rather than incentives has frustrated sections of the business community. 'With Cameron, a lot of activity is geared towards PR. At no stage have we got a sense from the Tories that business is a significant part of their thinking,' argues British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) director of policy and external affairs Sally Low.
'Cameron has sent out signals that he cares about issues such as obesity and the environment, which demonstrates an appetite for middle-class votes,' notes Craven. 'But the notion that he is inherently sceptical of big business is nonsense. His Tory administration would be as pro-business as any other.'
By contrast with the Tories, Low lauds the 'constructive relationship' and 'regular exposure' the BCC has enjoyed with Brown and the Treasury. However, the body remains concerned about a lack of support from across the political spectrum to improve transport links and the skills force in the regions.
Who's who in the inner circle?
So where will the levers of influence reside in a Brown-led government? Shriti Vadera is the Chancellor's main aide on industry and finance. She is on the so-called 'Council of Economic Advisers', set up by Brown as an adjunct to his special advisers, chief among whom are his 'gatekeeper' Spencer Livermore and political secretary Sue Nye. All are tipped to follow him into Number 10. As former aides to the Chancellor, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband head a young crop of MPs likely to prosper under a Brown administration (see above).
By all accounts though, Brown's 'inner circle' is tighter and more difficult to target than Blair's. 'Brown has an incredibly close cabal of friends and colleagues,' says FH's McMillan. He adds: 'There is a broader group of Blairites who get out and engage. You need to be more imaginative in targeting Brown.'
His former PR man, PRWeek columnist Charlie Whelan, concurs: 'Brown keeps his cards closer to his chest than Blair does and his coterie is tighter. He didn't tell the PM he was going to make the Bank of England independent until after the 1997 election.'
Younger members of the Cameron inner sanctum were branded the 'Notting Hill Set' long before he became leader. They epitomise the kind of aspirational, metropolitan types who in recent elections voted New Labour rather than Conservative.
However, Weber Shandwick chairman of PA Jon McLeod cautions against making a 'headlong rush to network furiously' with close aides of Brown and Cameron, not least because 'there are bound to be some comings and goings'. And Edelman Europe vice-chairman Michael Burrell says: 'New people can be fascinating and glamorous but I was always told that politics is Hollywood for ugly people. Good public affairs is about having expertise in government and politics, not in personalities.' Arguably then, the challenge is to identify these personalities and understand their agenda.
Aside from identifying the key figures – and in Cameron's case, targeting the policy commissions – think-tanks are an effective vehicle for getting an issue aired, particularly given their media nous. Although many think-tanks claim to be independent, under Blair, the Institute for Public Policy Research has thrived more than any other. The left-leaning Compass, run by LLM Communications founder Neil Lawson, and the time-honoured Fabian Society, which organised Brown's recent speech on 'Britishness', also enjoy a healthy profile.
Maintaining close ties
But The Smith Institute, named after ex-Labour leader John Smith and set up to pursue a social justice agenda, is closest to Brown. Bell Pottinger's Bingle goes as far as to say: 'The Smith Institute will provide the strategy and context under which Brown operates. [Its director] Wilf Stevenson is the holder of the Brown agenda, bringing it all together and moulding it.'
Policy Exchange has correspondingly strong ties to Cameron. It was set up three years ago by director Nicholas Bowles, the MP Michael Gove and Francis Maude.
Bowles says its key areas of interest will be economic competitiveness, security and terrorism, childcare, the environment and public service reform. A main income source is a 'business forum' that companies pay £5,000 to £10,000 to be part of. Members include BP, SAB Miller, BSkyB and Bupa.
'Corporates want intelligence about the policy directions and instincts of how a Cameron-led government would think', he explains. Like many think-tanks, Policy Exchange works with lobbyists to help stage and fund debates, with a pinnacle of activity around the autumn party conferences. But Bowles adds: 'We're nervous of the perception that corporates are sponsoring research because that undermines our credibility.'
Because of the tightness of his clique, few expect a Brown leadership to usher in a stronger cabinet and greater parliamentary scrutiny than has been the case under Blair. Many characterise Brown as a 'centraliser' and 'control freak'. And yet, he is expected to strive to restore trust in Government and counter the culture of spin. Bingle asserts: 'Brown will revoke the Privy Council Order enabling advisers to instruct officials. He will thus start his premiership symbolically with this huge public signal.' And Whelan predicts Brown will have 'a proper civil servant press secretary, not an Alastair Campbell-type spin doctor'.
That said, a Guardian report last week said Campbell, with Blair's personal pollster Philip Gould, 'has begun a series of regular meetings' to advise Brown on staving off the Cameron threat.
If all goes to plan, by the time Brown makes the smooth transition to Number 10 he will have spent nearly a decade as Chancellor. But given that he has operated on a relatively narrow bandwidth with economic matters at the core of his thinking, it is something of a mystery where he stands on issues furthest removed from the Treasury. On such issues, it is his passion for a better-educated, healthier workforce and corresponding drive for productivity that will probably dictate. His recent pronouncements on world poverty, patriotism and national security have presented him away from the UK economy, in a more statesman-like light.
Meanwhile, Cameron has tried to position Brown as an Old Labour figure wedded to the state. In reality, Brown has been nearly as strong an advocate as Blair of the private sector's involvement in delivering public services. It cannot be said under either man that the major public sector contracts prevalent in the Blair era – enabled by initiatives such as PFI and PPP – will suddenly evaporate.
Moreover, both men look likely to encourage the voluntary sector to play a greater role in social policy. For Cameron, this means encouraging local communities to tackle poverty and social exclusion, a key remit of his Social Justice policy group.
Here again, he has tried to portray Brown as relying too much on state intervention. But whereas Blair's mantra on service delivery has been that 'what counts is what works', National Council for Voluntary Organisations director of public policy Campbell Robb argues that Brown has more of a 'holistic view of how the voluntary sector can help public services'. Robb lists out-of-school clubs, elderly care and drugs clinics as examples of services that could be better delivered by charities, but he cautions that 'voluntary organisations need to get paid the right amount' in such instances by government.
As well as reaching outside the state for solutions, any future government is likely to look outside the centre. Policy is increasingly being delegated away from Westminster and Whitehall, most notably in education and health. 'PA people need to be alert to opportunities to achieve their objectives at a local level,' advises Burrell.
Assuming it happens, the general election contest between Brown and Cameron could be the closest fought for a generation. Lobbyists point out that while the Liberal Democrats may lose seats, they could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. Where the Lib Dems' views are out of synch with the two major parties – on energy policy for instance, they are fervently against nuclear power – this has far-reaching implications. So its new leader's pronouncements could carry more weight than ever before. As if trying to make sense of Gordon and David wasn't enough.
THE CONSERVATIVE'S POLICY COMMISSIONS
Chairs Next CEO Simon Wolfson and John Redwood MP
Scope of enquiry Transport infrastructure,simplification of the tax system, labour skills, business regulation, planning laws and public sector productivity.
Globalisation and Global Poverty
Chair Peter Lilley MP, with Bob Geldof 'working in consultation'
Scope of enquiry Benefits and impacts of globalised free trade and the interactions between trade, sustainability and the relief of global poverty.
National and International Security
Chair Dame Pauline Neville-Jones
Deputy chair Lord King of Bridgwater
Scope of enquiry Rise of Islamic fundamentalism, threats from failed and failing states, proliferation of unconventional weapons, the nature of our open society and building community cohesion.
Public Service Improvement
Chairs Baroness Pauline Perry and Stephen Dorrell MP
Scope of enquiry All aspects of public service delivery, including healthcare, education, housing and local services.
Quality of Life
Chair John Gummer MP, 'backed up by' environmental campaigner and editor of The Ecologist Zac Goldsmith
Scope of enquiry The environment, countryside, energy and climate change.
Chair Iain Duncan Smith MP
Deputy chair Debbie Scott, CEO of unemployment and homelessness group Tomorrow's People
Scope of enquiry Treatment of young people affected by drugs and alcohol, the elderly, and how to empower the voluntary sector, foster social enterprise and encourage neighbourhood revival.