Brexit storm provided PRs some cover from controversy - but no more

It's a staple in the political calendar. On 2 January, rail fares rise in line with inflation, compounding commuter misery at returning to work after the Christmas break.

Brexit storm provided PRs some cover from controversy - but no more

It’s never a pretty sight. And yet, this year, there was something oddly reassuring about it.

That’s because its dominance of the news that day was the first concrete example of politics returning to normal after the three and a half years of extreme abnormality.

Events like the rail fares increase used to matter in politics. When I was a special adviser in the Department for Transport between 2012 and 2014, we dreaded it. Yet by the time I was running the Number 10 communications grid under Theresa May it had ceased to register – as Brexit and the political mayhem it unleashed consumed everything else.

Another example: In 2011, the decision to award the contract to build Thameslink trains to Siemens, a foreign company, led to months of political pain for the Government. Fast forward to 2018 and reaction to the award of the contract to manufacture British passports to a French company was far more muted. There was simply too much else going on for pressure on the Government to be sustained on that issue.

With every day that passes from last month’s election, this will apply to more and more issues that cross the desks of communications and public affairs professionals.

Business can once again expect deeper, more sustained scrutiny when the political and corporate worlds collide. Unconsciously, many PR teams may have found some cover from controversy in the storm of Brexit. Now they will need to be readier to explain difficult situations and decisions.

The other side of the coin is that, for the first time in a decade we have a strong, majority Government – spearheaded by a Downing Street operation that wants radical change, has the parliamentary numbers to deliver it and, plausibly, a ten-year timeframe to work to.

As a result, the structure of Whitehall will be overhauled.

It will be more centrally managed and more responsive to the political will of the elected Government and more focused on its priorities: re-balancing and future-proofing the economy by embracing science and technology, while investing in infrastructure. So too will the role of parliament – a pliant enabler, rather than a violent wrecking ball of Government plans.

All of this requires business to fundamentally rethink many aspects of how it engages with Westminster and Whitehall.

Consider this: just last year, engaging MPs to advocate a cause with the Treasury ahead of fiscal events could be highly effective. In precarious political times, the Chancellor needed their support in Parliament. With a majority of 80, that tactic looks like one that may lose some of its usefulness.

Those businesses that understand and plan for this new reality can hope for positive engagement that helps shape regulation and policy in a way that improves their sector and the contribution it can make to the UK economy.

Those that don’t may struggle to be noticed and fare badly when they are.

Ben Mascall is a director at Headland, and former Number 10 head of strategic comms and co-director of communications for the Conservative Party in last month's general election

Thumbnail image: ©GettyImages

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