Hugh Colver, former director of communications for the Conservative
Party, explains how the Budget could have been used as a brilliant PR
opportunity to jolt the public out of its political ennui
The trouble with political communications is that, in order to ensure
your ‘product’ will outsell that of the opposition to a broad customer
base, you have to change its substance and packaging all the time while
remaining crystal clear about identity.
Take Kenneth Clarke’s Budget. Imagine devising a communications strategy
for that! Yes, I know nobody apparently attempted any such thing but if
it had been tried, it would have required recognition that the many
audiences have very different aspirations and expectations - and react
in various ways to the same ingredients.
The risk of disappointing everyone in these situations is obvious, but
if the very survival of your product is judged by some to be at stake,
then that should focus your attention on what is most likely to appeal
to the most important part of your customer base.
If you are Chancellor of the Exchequer you have a complex set of
audiences to consider. In simple terms they divide into the mass of the
voting public, the Party faithful and not so faithful, the City,
industry, commerce, media, economists and the markets.
Some of these groupings are ill-defined and certainly overlap, but we
all know how they rate in the electability stakes.
The simple presentational task is to give ‘the electorate’ warm feelings
and confidence, while not leaving the experts too uncomfortable.
If you are the governing political party, 16 years in power, trailing in
the polls, regarded as tired and stale and the subject of considerable
disillusionment, then you need to come up with something that will
produce a reaction something close to ‘gosh!’.
This is especially so when expectations among your own core group are so
high. With the summer leadership challenge producing unity, a successful
Party conference cementing it and a new legislative programme
demonstrating the existence of new ideas, the Budget could have been the
icing on a political cake in desperate need of it.
Cut taxes, cut public expenditure, cut borrowing, cut interest rates and
give a boost to education, law and order, small businesses and maybe
even housing. That is not ‘steady as she goes’ or ‘keeping the markets
sweet’, but it excites some of the punters, encourages them to sit up
and take notice and reminds them that you want to be market leader
Instead, Mr Clarke continued with safe economics. This is no doubt
sensible in purist terms, but politically there are times when you have
to take risks to survive.