Nick Williams, Fleishman-Hillard: Return of the backbencher

If the Conservatives win a small majority, Tory MPs will once again have power to influence policy.

With constant talk of a small Conservative majority or even a hung Parliament, lobbying tactics that have not been widely used since John Major's last Conservative government 13 years ago may now be on the verge of a remarkable comeback.

Before 1 May 1997, real power lay not in Downing Street or Whitehall, but in the House of Commons. After the 1997 election and the large Labour majority, power moved instantly to Downing Street, where it has remained in various forms until the present day.

With an initial majority of 21 (reduced further over time as a result of by-election defeats), John Major's government had to ensure all policy measures that required a parliamentary vote would attract the total support of the Parliamentary Conservative Party.

Consequently, government policy had to take account of backbench feeling, and policy would have to change to ensure legislation could go through - without this support in the voting lobbies, the Government would literally be brought to its knees.

This meant that public affairs consultancies used very specific strategies. Orchestrated campaigns focused their attention on securing backbench support for particular policies that could then either be launched into Whitehall departments at an early stage of policy development, or brought out at the last minute when a measure came to the House for parliamentary scrutiny.

The government whips had never had to work so hard, resulting in the dusting down of some of the whips' 'dark arts' and the pre-eminence of those who practised them with ease, notably the original 'Prince of Darkness', Tristan Garel-Jones.

So what does this mean for public affairs companies in 2010? And what does it mean for those consultancies that have only known public affairs consultancy dealing with a government where power lay only in Whitehall, and Parliament was a rubber stamp?

There are four main lessons. First, the return to power of the Conservative backbench MP. Working with a small group of similar-minded colleagues, Conservative MPs in a Tory government with a slim majority will have a far greater influence on government policy than has been seen for 13 years. This means a return to intensive lobbying and persuasion of individual MPs on single issues. Those involved in public affairs could find themselves spending longer hours actually in Parliament targeting potential supporters.

Second, parliamentary mobilisation. Gaining the support of groups of potential 'rebel' backbenchers also means a return to parliamentary mobilisation through set-piece campaigns and coalition building. Short, targeted campaigns could show immediate results.

Third, mixing new technology with old techniques. At a time when public affairs companies are increasingly using the latest digital comms techniques for political communication, these will now be designed to support old techniques in order to develop coalitions of support or target groups of Conservative MPs. Digital public affairs will have firmly come to the UK.

And fourth, the return of the whips. The whips will once again be a crucial part of government, rather than taken for granted, as they have often been under recent Labour administrations.

A small majority for David Cameron will transform the way public affairs is conducted. Integrating new digital methods with more traditional techniques, public affairs practitioners will seek to target a new breed of increasingly independent Conservative candidates who will be elected this year.

The return of the powerful Tory backbencher will also see the return of those who wish to influence this power - not just in Whitehall but in the parliamentary corridors of power as well.


- Who are your five fantasy dinner party guests from the political world?

Sir Winston Churchill; diarist Alan Clark; Tom Driberg MP (former Labour MP); Dame Barbara Castle; Lord Michael Cocks - Labour whip in the 1970s.

- Predict one thing that will happen in the week running up to the election.

A 'leaked' email or paper will emerge from a Labour cabinet minister detailing plans to get rid of Gordon Brown following the election.

- A hung parliament: good or bad news for public affairs?

It would mean a return to power for parliament - particularly backbenchers.

Nick Williams is director and head of public affairs, Fleishman-Hillard London

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