Stuart Thomson is Head of Public Affairs at BDB Pitmans. Louise has known him for years and for the past two they have been working together on a joint strategic communications project. In regular life they see each other at least once a month but since lockdown, other than on video meetings with our client, they’ve not had chance to catch up properly. So they set aside an hour on a quiet afternoon to chat about politics, working from home and lockdown.
Louise: The general election seems like a lifetime ago. The Government still has a huge majority in Parliament, but public support of its handling of the Covid-19 crisis has taken a big hit. Will Boris Johnson survive the next four years?
Stuart: The only real way, outside of some personal health issue, for him to lose power would be for his MPs to wield the knife. Whilst this is not completely impossible, it is extremely unlikely. So on balance, yes, he will survive.
The Government will though be concerned about the findings of any public inquiry into the handling of Covid-19. There could be a series of bad headlines about the speed of lockdown, the lack of PPE, quarantine rules. These could easily drown out all the good work the Government has achieved. So there are dangers but Boris should be fine!
A while back, all we could talk about was Brexit. I don’t miss the endless Brexit news coverage, but I do worry about what comes next. How do you see it panning out?
It will be a game of brinksmanship on both sides until a deal is or isn’t done. On the logical side, would the Government want a no trade deal situation immediately after the problems of Covid-19? And we will still be in its shadow. Would they want more pressure on the economy and expect organisations to cope? But, on the more political side, the promise has been clear that we come out at the end of the year and there will be no changing that. My best guess is that we get a partial trade agreement covering some sectors and with the promise of continued discussion in other areas.
Keir Starmer. How would you rate his performance so far?
Very good so far and he has certainly rattled the PM! But, as the election showed, the last leadership was rejected by the country and the country was skeptical, at the very least, about the programme being put forward. So whilst Starmer was starting from a low base, there is no doubt that his abilities are good, his instincts look sound and he is getting the communications right. The early months of a leadership set the tone and he could easily have been caught offside by Covid-19 or Brexit. That hasn’t happened so far but there will be challenges to look forward to.
You’ve obviously had to adapt the way you engage with politicians during lockdown, and presumably the issues your clients are concerned with may not be a priority for policy-makers at the moment. Do you think there will be long-lasting changes to the way public affairs professionals work?
There is a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ response to that question.
“Politics tends to be quite traditional in many ways and it doesn’t like too much change.”
Also, whether remotely or otherwise, Parliament will remain the heart of politics and public affairs. I can’t see face-to-face interactions, discussions, networking, and events in Parliament being replaced any time soon. But I can see more events having to be smaller, so maybe more of them, and more briefings over Zoom.
But to come back to the first part of your question, we are going to have to fight harder for the attention of MPs not least because they are having to deal with critical issues in the constituencies – businesses fighting to stay alive, support needed for individuals and families.
As far as Government is concerned, once the more immediate Covid-19 crisis is over, then it needs to show it is a proper government again, with ideas and making changes. That is an opportunity.
I think a lot of people who go into PR actually want to be journalists. Do most public affairs people secretly want to be politicians? Do you?
Me? No! I have huge admiration for any politician, especially MPs. The stress, pressure, impact on family life, I couldn’t deal with any of those. But there is a stream of public affairs people who come from having worked in Parliament or try and end up back there by becoming a MP. Some are successful, some aren’t! Some even end up in the Cabinet.