Downing St. comms chiefs let the tail wag the dog by leaking the VAT story

We saw headlines over the weekend about likely VAT reductions as the Government seeks to revive consumer spending.

Never let the tail wag the dog in government comms, advises Gavin Megaw
Never let the tail wag the dog in government comms, advises Gavin Megaw

Such briefings are a reminder that the tail should never wag the dog; yet, in politics, it happens far too often.

Many years ago, I convinced a senior government figure to leak me the Downing Street grid.

The weekly news grid is at the heart of how successive governments have managed their agendas.

Back then, Alastair Campbell put it at the heart of how No. 10 planned priority messages around political events and other key moments within the national consciousness.

It was ruthlessly protected - and rightly so, because it played a vital role in coalescing key players within the administration and helping them stay efficient and effective.

Each week I’d meet my contact in Westminster for a ‘secretive’ handover of the document.

We would never use the same spot, naively thinking this would help us avoid detection.

Our meetings would be short, sometimes over a drink in a pub, but most of the time not.

We always feared being caught - after all, this was a restricted document.

While the government was oblivious, the document started to get attention at the top of the Conservative Party, my employer.

Seen as an intelligence coup, it quickly became an active part of Shadow Cabinet meetings.

Then, only a few months in, a senior Tory ‘spin doctor’ inexplicably leaked our leak to the Mail on Sunday to “fill a gap” in the paper’s news agenda and protect a relationship with a journalist. Absolute madness.

This, of course, spooked my source, who took to hills. And with the source went our ability to accurately predict government activity. Damn.

I relive this to remind us all that good communications leaders never allow the tail to wag the dog.

They’re there to deliver an overall strategy, not just land coverage.

It’s with this mindset that I read the news over the weekend that Rishi Sunak is expected to reduce VAT in July.

The policy position makes sense. Briefing it so far in advance makes no sense; it will slow spending before the reduction kicks in, thus hurting the Government’s economic objectives.

Every organisation struggles to fill gaps in their media agenda and avoid a news vacuum.

Leading communicators know it doesn’t help our organisations, or us, to seek news for the sake of it.

Instead, they have content stacked and ready to go that supports, instead of impedes, the strategy.

That doesn’t appear to be the approach taken within the Government.

Yes, they have more demand than your usual in-house role, but the small team at the heart of communications in Downing Street seem focused on running a continuous election campaign, filling gaps in news even when it means putting such stories ahead of what is best for the economy.

When the tail wags the dog, the dog ends up chasing it.

In recent weeks the Government has appeared stuck in that maddening vicious cycle.

Gavin Megaw is managing director, corporate & brand, at Hanover

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