Brace yourself for a bumpy ride in public affairs this autumn

Most new Prime Ministers can expect a honeymoon period, but Boris Johnson will spend his first months in office focused on the UK's divorce from the EU.

Even for the most battle-hardened consultant, this autumn will be a roller coaster, warns Jessica Frost
Even for the most battle-hardened consultant, this autumn will be a roller coaster, warns Jessica Frost

The Brexit issue has become so singular in its importance that it could bring down the new government before it has even had a chance to put forward a Budget. Even for the most battle-hardened consultant, this autumn will be a roller coaster. So, as we all assume the brace position, here are some predictions for what might happen next.

A general election is coming

As we have seen in the last 24 hours, the inescapable logic of the new PM’s Brexit strategy is that a general election is coming – and soon. Depending on how long it can be delayed, this, and the presence of new ministers, presents an opportunity for clients to brush the ice off proposals that have been in the deep freeze since 2017. Policies that align with Johnson’s worldview (sunshine and optimism always, infrastructure and capital investment where possible) will be popular – particularly if they are costed and easy to parachute into a manifesto. On the downside is the risk that client issues will get sucked into the swirl of the election campaign. All decisions and planned announcements should be reassessed with this in mind.

Progress on the domestic policy agenda will be limited

Johnson’s early pledges were about delivering money to cash-starved public services – not issues of substantive policy. With the clock ticking down to 31 October, and with an election on the horizon possibly before that, government will focus on establishing the machinery for an election campaign and getting the infrastructure for no deal in place. The new Cabinet and ministers may be receptive to fresh thinking, but they won’t be in a position to do much about it until maybe 2020.

Planning for no deal is now a non-negotiable

Many clients will have had operational plans in place for a while. But decisions on the comms – internal and external – before and after a no-deal exit now need to be taken. What will clients say to customers, suppliers and employees about the likely consequences of a chaotic exit? How do they avoid being accused of being part of Project Fear – and incurring the wrath of Downing Street’s new inhabitants in doing so? 

The landscape for public affairs in the UK has changed – maybe for good

The manner of Johnson’s arrival in Number 10 confirms this. Arguments based on economic rationalism, directed at a small group of decision-makers in Westminster, no longer work. We are in an era of ‘government by virtue signalling’, where policies and the people that deliver them are not just important in their own right but act as a shorthand to energise the base.

Clients must frame their arguments to appeal to the heart as well as the head – to signpost their values as well as their economic contribution to the UK. They need to understand with more precision to what specific constituencies their policy ask will appeal. And they must find more creative ways to bring their arguments to life and build consensus across increasingly deep political divides – particularly if the election results in yet another hung parliament.

Jessica Frost is a senior managing director at Teneo

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