The communications arm of the Conservative Party’s Central Office
has its work cut out for the next five years. Plunging morale,
increasing divisions and a bruising leadership fight has put the PR
effort immediately on the defensive, when pundits say their best course
of action is to attack.
The broad agreement is that no matter what the Conservatives did during
the election they would still have lost. The problem, says Jonathan
Caine, a press officer for the Tories during the election campaign and a
former special adviser for Northern Ireland, was that: ’The public
decided five years ago that they wanted us out. Even if we had run the
most amazing campaign in the history of elections it would not have made
That shock has sunk into the core of the Party and now they must face
the uphill struggle of being in Opposition.
The communications team has its own struggle. The man who guided the
Tories through their last 16 months in power and the election campaign,
former director of communications Charles Lewington, has gone, as has
head of news Eileen Wise. Stalwart Sheila Gunn, John Major’s press
secretary, will depart once the new leader is elected. From a high of
between 40 and 60 people during the election campaign, numbers are down
to 12, including three secretaries.
But, says Caine: ’Right now PR is secondary. What we have to do first of
all is sort out the leadership contest. Once we have new policies and a
leader we can unite behind it will be easier to do the PR job.’
When the new leader and party chairman do finally emerge the consensus
is that the director of communications, currently ex-Today programme
editor Francis Halewood, must simply mimic the Labour Party as it was in
But the first task, according to Lewington’s predecessor Hugh Colver, is
’a pretty brutal self-analysis over a short period of time, followed by
a fundamental shake up of the PR machine’. He says the new party
chairman cannot afford to be complacent and let a caretaker team slip
into the permanent posts because of the passage of time. ’You have to
have a small group of good people at the centre who can really focus and
not be churlish about changing things. They need to approach their
assignment as if it were a well-known brand that is losing its market
share,’ says Colver.
Central Office insiders readily admit that their ailing machine is in
need of new blood and that communication must be made a priority. But
those holding the purse-strings must be willing to fork out for the best
talent to do the job.
Sheila Gunn agrees. She told PR Week: ’The services provided by the
communications department, press and research, will become increasingly
important’. Central Office will need to provide strong and speedy
support for the diminished ranks of Tory MPs, many of whom have been
insulated by 18 years in power and many others who have never known what
it is like to be in Opposition.
In essence, they will have to be ready with the quick rebuttal and swift
replies to Labour announcements. If a Labour minister makes a slip on
the Today programme then Central Office will need to be ready to exploit
that on the lunchtime news, she says.
Colver adds that it will also be important to get the balance of staff
right. Ex-newspaper journalists and broadcasters are useful for contacts
and spotting the angle that will sell a story, but the communications
team must still have a strategic direction that can be provided by
seasoned PR professionals. ’They should get good outside advice,’ he
On the other side of the fence, the disappearance of some household
names like Michael Portillo and David Mellor will leave broadcasters and
journalists without the old standby personalities they could depend on
to provide the appropriate reaction. Consequently, the communication
team will have to be ready to train many of the new MPs on handling
newspaper and radio interviews.
However, according to one party insider the new MPs are a savvy lot and
unlikely to succumb to a savaging by the likes of Jeremy Paxman. ’There
are some six or seven new MPs who are waiting in the wings to become the
new Tory media stars,’ he said.
There are opportunities too, for the backroom boys and girls to become
stars. Many pundits agree that a job on the Tory communications team,
will provide a tremendous challenge. ’Quite a lot of people could make
their names if they get it right’, says Gunn.
The bottom line is that to beef up its PR operation the Conservatives
need look no further than the Labour Party. As galling as it might be to
emulate the Labour dynamic duo of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson,
the unassailable fact is that this is what they have to do. And, like
New Labour, they will have to be prepared to go for the jugular ’The
Tories’ media people will have to decide early on what the Labour
Government’s weaknesses are and keep hitting them,’ says Caine.
But, in addition, the MPs need to get their policies right. Caine says
the communications team ’will have an easy job to sell the party once it
is united and it knows what its policies are.’