David Singleton: A hit so far for coalition comms

This week, the UK's first coalition Government in 70 years marked its first 100 days in office.

David Singleton
David Singleton

Political commentators have picked over the politicians' performances, but how have the increasingly influential comms figures fared?

For an informed assessment, PRWeek turned to outgoing Sunday Times political editor Jonathan Oliver. In this week's feature, the soon-to-be PR man gives a broad thumbs-up to the new set-up in Downing Street. 'In a short space of time the spin operations of the two parties have been fused into one seamless unit,' he notes.

The new Number 10 regime is clearly an improvement on the chaotic comms operation that propagated under Gordon Brown. Insiders agree that the coalition comms team has approached its first 100 days more calmly and more strategically than was normal practice under the last PM.

No longer is there a sense that policy decisions are routinely being influenced by the previous day's headlines. No longer are government departments seeing Number 10 reworking announcements at the last minute. No longer are Downing Street comms staff permanently frazzled as a result of being rudely awoken at 5am and working around the clock.

Of course, there have been a few gimmicks. The journalist in Andy Coulson is still alive and kicking. There have also been gaffes. Michael Gove's false promises of new buildings for several schools was a serious mistake. David Cameron's botched intervention over free school milk was not the finest hour for the Number 10 comms grid. But the mud has not stuck: Downing Street has managed to shut down each of these stories quickly.

As Brown's comms team would testify, such mishaps only become running stories if a government does not have a coherent, alternative message to sell. Under the last PM, this was never achieved. In the void, every gaffe appeared indicative of a wider character trait.

Under David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the two key messages are the case for cuts and 'we are all working together'. With no huge rifts yet, the second message is still largely intact, but there is growing anxiety about the first in government circles.

This week, George Osborne sought to present the cuts as 'progressive'. The change of rhetoric is significant - it shows that Downing Street realises the message needs to be finessed.

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