Scandal and defections test Tory comms machine

Was the Conservative media response to a damaging sex scandal and UKIP defection up to scratch? Ian Griggs asks the experts what they thought of the tactics.

Brooks Newmark: resigned on final weekend of September (picture credit: Getty Images)
Brooks Newmark: resigned on final weekend of September (picture credit: Getty Images)

The eve of last week’s Conservative Party conference was rocked by the twin explosions of a defection to UKIP and the resignation of a freshly minted minister caught up in a sex scandal.

It is plausible that the defection of Mark Reckless to UKIP was already anticipated by the Tory high command as a ticking time-bomb.

By contrast, the resignation of Brooks Newmark, following a sting in the Sunday Mirror in which he sent ill-advised images of himself to a reporter posing as a "twenty-something Tory PR girl", can only have come as a surprise to the party.

"Sleaze grows like mould on old governments and they become a benign host to it," says Matthew Taylor, former head of Labour’s ‘rapid rebuttal’ unit in the 1990s, now chief executive of the RSA (Royal Society of Arts).

"The fear the Tories have of the Brooks Newmark case is that it reminds people of Tory sleaze, but they handled it pretty well."

One Conservative MP commented that the Newmark debacle had "eerie echoes" of John Major’s government in the 1990s, with the pernicious drip-drip effect of sleaze scandals corroding its ‘family values’ stance.

But Kirsty Walker, former Daily Mail lobby correspondent, now associate director at iNHouse Communications, rejects this analysis.

"This is a completely different era," she says. "The Major government was fighting on a platform of family values. Decades later, it is generally accepted that Brooks made a very foolish mistake but one doesn’t get the feeling this is the first of more. The comms team handled it well."

The Tory comms team unleashed the hounds of war following the defection of Reckless and he was immediately denounced as a liar by his former colleagues, in stark contrast to the expressions of regret that followed the departure of Douglas Carswell to UKIP a month earlier.

Walker believes this could give other nascent defectors pause for thought.

She says: "UKIP says it has up to seven more Tory MPs who might defect but maybe the Tory response so far will make it less rather than more likely that they will. After Mark Reckless defected, they made it personal and said he lied to his colleagues’ faces. The comms operation is showing other potential defectors that it is going to come out fighting hard."

Of all the malcontents, Reckless is probably the one the Tory high command most wanted to leave – and at least he is not a grandee, argues Taylor.

He says: "It has created a sense at the conference that, in the end, people have to make a decision. Mavericks and individualists were never going to be at home in a party that requires discipline and this might lead the party to close ranks. If the high command had to have someone to exemplify the choice, Reckless works."

However, John McTernan, a political commentator and strategist who was recently head of comms to Australian Labor Party leader Julia Gillard, thinks the comms reaction from the high command to the defections has exposed its lack of strategy.

He says: "The fact they have acted so viciously towards Reckless by calling him a liar shows how rattled they are. There is no ‘reach out’ strategy. When you have rebels, you have to know who they are and who their friends are so there is always someone who can phone them and talk them down from the ledge. They don’t know who’s on the ledge."

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