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Donal Blaney: In moments of crisis, the initiative passes to those who are best prepared

Every week the Co-Founder and Chief Executive of the Young Britons' Foundation, Donal Blaney, explains one of Morton Blackwell's Laws of the Public Policy Process. Morton Blackwell is the Founder and President of the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Virginia.


Roy Castle used to finish every edition of Record Breakers with a rendition of the worthy anthem "Dedication". Those who were in the Cub Scouts as young boys will remember that the motto was "Be Prepared".  And business seminars remind us that "Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance". Winging it and flying by the seat of our pants are discouraged and yet all too often, human nature being as it is, we prepare inadequately for the challenges facing us.

Preparation is fundamental in politics. While the swing of the national pendulum is an important factor in the success of otherwise of local campaigns, there are innumerable examples where a properly planned, well-run local campaign can buck national or regional trends - witness the successes of independent candidates in Wyre Forest and Blaenau Gwent or the large swings in the parliamentary seats of Romford in 2001 and Hammersmith & Fulham in 2005.

Preparation is particularly important in a moment of crisis. At such times the rule book is thrown out of the window. The determining factor as to who comes out on top during such a crisis is the level of preparation beforehand.

As unappealing as it may be to reflect on the Nazis' success in seizing power in Germany in the 1930s, it cannot be ignored that Hitler and Goebbels ruthlessly exploited the crisis of the Reichstag Fire to great effect such that a communist activist was blamed for the fire (even though historians now believe that the Nazis themselves may have started the fire deliberately), communism was portrayed in the media as a direct threat to Germans and Hitler then painted himself as the only man to protect Germany from the Soviet threat (such that his elevation to Fuehrer the following year was presented as both inevitable and desirable).

The Bolsheviks had similarly exploited the domestic and military crises of 1917 to great effect in what was then Tsarist Russia. They also had a plan for when they took power. Roosevelt too exploited the financial crisis of the early 1930s to great effect in the United States so as to lead to the massive expansion of the role of the state in America during the Great Depression. Churchill's accession to power in 1940 was also as a result of his exploitation of the crisis of the impending fall of France to brilliant effect.

Blair's accession to the Labour Party leadership in 1994 is a case study in the ruthless exploitation of a moment of crisis. Casting one's mind back to John Smith's time as Labour leader (1992-94) it must be remembered that Margaret Beckett and Gordon Brown were far more highly favoured by both Smith and, seemingly, the Labour machine. And yet thanks to the efforts of Peter "Bobby" Mandelson and other New Labour cohorts, and the pact at La Granita with Brown, Blair ensured a crushing victory in the leadership election. The rest, as they say, is history.

There are parallels with David Cameron's victory. While it may be fashionable to believe that Cameron's campaign was a low-key affair consisting of a handful of true believers in his modernisation agenda - a latter day Band of Brothers - and that everything turned on Cameron's performance at the Party Conference, this is not an accurate portrayal at all.

The supporters of "modernisation" (which, for these purposes, I shall define as being a belief that the next election can only be won by repositioning the Party in the centre, by toning down policies on crime, immigration, taxes and Europe and by embracing a socially liberal agenda) had spent a number of years working on their project. The initial standard bearer, Michael Portillo, was only defeated in 2001 by some tactical voting engineered by the 92 Group of MPs to ensure a run-off between Ken Clarke and IDS. The modernisers then spent the next 2 years working behind the scenes, often undermining IDS' leadership in the process, to prepare for the next battle.  Organisations such as C-Change and Policy Exchange were born.

Realising they were not ready - and understanding that the 2005 election was likely to be another defeat for the Party for which they did not want to take the blame - they helped ensure that Michael Howard took power. And once Howard had lost, they moved to ensure that key adjutants were put in place in readiness for the ensuing leadership campaign (most notably Francis Maude assuming the role of Party Chairman). The impressive level of preparation saw a well-funded, brilliantly organised campaign among MPs, in associations, on campuses and in the media which reached its zenith with Cameron's own crushing victory. As with Blair, rather than resting on their laurels, the Cameroons have moved at lightning pace to reposition and rebrand the Party politically and to reform it internally.

There are of course examples of individuals who fail to exploit a moment of crisis and whose lack of preparation condemns them to failure. Butler after Suez. Butler (again) in 1963 on Macmillan's resignation. The Wets at the time of the initial loss of the Falklands. Kinnock during Westland. Kerry in the last US Presidential election. Thatcher's campaign team in 1990 was woefully under-prepared for the crisis of Heseltine's leadership challenge.

Such is the nature of a crisis that it cannot be predicted. Nonetheless contingency planning is essential. The contrast in leadership exhibited by Rudy Giuliani after 9/11 and New Orleans Mayor Nagin after Hurricane Katrina was stark. The key to dealing with such a crisis is preparation. Without preparation it will be nearly impossible to exploit a crisis to best effect. With preparation you are much more likely to do so.

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