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Closing the deal 9/10: Build better relations with MPs, journalists and other friends

James Forsyth writes an excellent politics column for The Spectator - a product of good contacts and intelligent observation. Up until today he has tended to pull his punches but not with his latest piece.

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Punch one: "When David Cameron and George Osborne move between their suite of offices at the eastern end of the parliamentary estate and the Commons chamber they do so with a pomp that would not embarrass a medieval monarch. A crowd of attendants accompanies them, constantly changing positions but never disrupting the order: staffer, Cameron, staffer, Osborne, staffer. The party moves through the corridors at breakneck speed, heads thrown back, staring into the middle distance rather than looking around at their colleagues. This display certainly succeeds in getting them noticed. But to the Tory MPs whom they march past without even a glance, the whole procession symbolises not power but the remoteness and arrogance of those who are running the party."

Punch two: "By rights, Tory MPs should adore the men who are about to end their 13 years in the political wilderness. Three successive leaders have led the Tories to defeat. Now, Mr Cameron is about to take them to victory in a campaign masterminded by his shadow chancellor, Mr Osborne. But talking to backbench MPs, one is struck by the lack of love for either of them. The reason for this is simple: the infantry feel underappreciated and ignored. As one backbencher told me in exasperation this week, ‘the Cameron machine doesn’t listen to anyone’ — and, worse, it doesn’t even pretend to listen. Even members of the shadow Cabinet can occasionally be found asking journalists for clues as to what the party leadership is up to."

Punch three: "For all his talk about devolving power, Mr Cameron has as Tory leader centralised power at every opportunity. It is a long-standing joke that anyone who works as one of Mr Cameron’s aides automatically outranks any shadow Cabinet member. But this joke is too close to the bone now for many members of the shadow Cabinet. Andrew Lansley was infuriated when his changes weren’t made to the Tories’ draft health manifesto, leading to a slew of stories about Tory splits and U-turns. Others have taken to firing off irate emails when policy is announced without their knowledge. "

The article goes on in the same vein.

James is spot on in what he writes.  I'm amazed at the number of key think tank leaders, MPs and journalists who have next to no contact with the key members of the Cameron team.

As James writes in his column (not yet online) a failure to nurture key relations doesn't matter much when you have a double digit opinion poll lead. It'll matter a great deal when the leadership needs supporters in the press and on the backbenches.

In an insightful column for PR Week Week Tara Hamilton-Miller notes that the political honeymoon is a shortening phenomenon. Blair had three years, she writes. Sarkozy had eighteen months. Obama has had less than a year. Cameron may need allies quicker than he thinks. I suggest three key urgent steps that need to be taken:

  1. The drawing up of a list of the 100 people Cameron most needs to nurture. A little bit of face time does make a big difference. I know of one political commentator who has been decidedly more positive about the Tory leadership after getting some quality time. Cameron's diary is already full but he does too much of the party's big events. He should do less (so protecting the specialness of his interventions) and his big beasts need to do more. That should free up his diary a little.

  2. Promote one or two of Graham Brady, David Davis, Mark Field, Bernard Jenkin, Patrick Mercer or Hugo Swire to the frontbench. Up until now Cameron has not rehabilitated any of the frontbenchers who in some way or other he has fallen out with. He needs to show that there is forgiveness and a way back under his leadership for talented individuals.

  3. Restart the External Relations Unit. At the end of 2008 the party ran into financial difficulties and cut the CCHQ-based outreach that was taking place with third party groups, notably charities. That needs to be restarted. Any Conservative government will have plenty of enemies in the Labour-stuffed quangocracy. It'll need some friends too and it needs to start looking after those friends and feeding them with time and information.

Tim Montgomerie


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