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After Coulson, Downing Street should make four strategic shifts in communications strategy

Tim Montgomerie

So, who will it be? Guto Harri? George Pascoe-Watson? George Bridges? Or, as Andy Porter intriguingly blogs, a civil servant? In seeking a replacement for Andy Coulson, David Cameron should take this opportunity to refresh his whole communications operation. Here are some things he should think about.

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Address communications weakness (1): a lack of mission clarity. So far, the government is only associated with one thing - cuts. Only one policy - welfare reform - is really popular according to internal polling. Public opinion wasn't softened up for tuition fees. Observing the bubbling NHS row it doesn't seem that lessons have been learnt. 10 Downing Street needs a communications unit that has three or four big goals and works each and every day to achieve those goals - using beautiful images in the broadcast media, working with newspaper commentators, running internet-based campaigns and building relationships with the fifty most important third party actors in the subject area. Is a journalist, whose professional horizon is never much longer than 24 hours, the right person to deliver this communications strategy? Possibly but probably not. [See James Frayne on this subject last November].

Address communications weakness (2): emotional detachment of the party: Cameroons don't understand why the parliamentary party and right-wing newspapers don't adore the Cameron Project. We are the most radical government since 1979, they say. Putting aside the lack of action on Europe and crime - and legitimate worries about capacity to deliver the pace of reforms - there is a big difference between winning intellectual support for a project and achieving emotional purchase. Most Tory MPs and most conservative commentators have very little real contact with Downing Street. Downing Street staff are seen as remote, even aloof. Cameron needs a White House-style Department of External Relations that will systematically build relations with the two hundred most important opinion-formers on the Right, including pundits, think tank leaders and parliamentarians. Cameron also needs a second Parliamentary Private Secretary to work alongside Desmond Swayne. This second PPS would focus on better relations with the intake of 2010 (half of all Conservative MPs). I've recommended Edward Timpson before. If Cameron was feeling radical he would also reshuffle the accident prone Sayeeda Warsi. She is his Chairman, not the party's Chairman. 

Address communications weakness (3): ministers don't have enough help: I haven't met a single insider who thinks that the pre-election decision to limit the number of ministerial special advisers was wise. Some ministers are isolated in their departments with no help to prepare political speeches or dip into the wisdom of unconventional think tanks. For the sake of two or three million pounds (financed by bigger cuts elsewhere in marketing, quango or other undesirable budgets) government ministers could be united with one aide who believes single-mindedly in what that minister is doing and wants to help him/ her achieve it. Cameron should simply say that he was wrong about cutting the number of ministerial aides (voters like directness of this kind if it's presented carefully and doesn't become a regular thing). The PM can say that they won't be spinners but policy aides. He can say they are essential for the success of the government and he would be right. He may suffer 24 hours of bad publicity but the gain to ministers in terms of their effectiveness would last four years.

Address communications weakness (4): third parties, today's most trusted communicators, are under-deployed: If a politician tells you that their reforms to employment law are vital for the UK economy 33% of people might believe them. Ok, 20%. But if the Director of (it doesn't exist btw) tells a Question Time audience that these employment law reforms are vital to job creation the public are more likely to nod their heads. Every minister, every Tory and Lib Dem MP should be helping to build relations with new and existing third party groups. Finding allies beyond politics for the government's three or four top goals should be a central job of the outfit that replaces Team Coulson.

> Yesterday's ToryDiary: The Conservative Party owes Andy Coulson a huge debt but he was right to resign


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