Politics: Now is the time to come to the aid of the Party - Once leadership of the Conservative Party has been decided, the next job at hand will,ironically, be to emulate the success of New Labour’s public relations strategy

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 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

any difference.’



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

Opposition.



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

says.



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.’



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