What can we learn from the government reshuffle?

With the dust having settled on an unexpectedly dramatic government reshuffle, it’s time for those of us who engage with government, to consider what the changes at the top mean for business.

Here are Brands2Life Public Affairs’ big conclusions from the February reshuffle.

Loyalty trumps all else for Boris

This reshuffle confirmed the value that Boris Johnson places on loyalty.

In June 2019, a trio of relatively unknown MPs penned an opinion piece in the Times, describing Boris Johnson as ‘the only…logical answer’ to the challenges the UK faced.

The names of those MPs, all junior ministers in their respective departments at the time? The new Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.

All have had a meteoric rise since Johnson became PM; all now sit around the Cabinet table. The ultimate reward for their loyalty.

Conversely, Julian Smith, who was widely considered one of the best Northern Ireland secretaries in recent memory, having brokered the deal that saw the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive, was removed from the Cabinet. His departure came amid suggestions that Smith had never quite seen eye to eye with Johnson on issues such as Brexit. Preferring to fight his corner in Cabinet meetings rather than provide quiet loyalty, Smith seemingly paid the price.

Cleary this is not a government that values the dissenting voice.

Centralisation of power

All the signs in the run up to the reshuffle were that the influence of the Prime Minister’s closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, was waning; a government decision to approve HS2, a project of which he is known to be sceptical; rumours that he has had a major falling out with the PM’s partner, Carrie Symonds; his plans for a significant restructuring of Whitehall departments, put on ice.

Many predicted that the biggest casualty of the reshuffle would be Cummings himself, but in fact he emerges strengthened, with his reputation for ruthlessness enhanced.

Instead, the reshuffle headlines were dominated by news of the resignation of Chancellor Sajid Javid, unable to accept a demand that to remain in post he would need to sack his team of advisers and instead rely on a joint Treasury/Downing Street pool of SpAds.

The Prime Minister, and Cummings, know that having swept to electoral victory on the back of former Labour voters in the north, they must now offer those voters something to justify their support. That means big spending on infrastructure, housing and education to materially improve the lives of those have ‘lent’ the Conservatives their vote.

Sajid Javid was a Chancellor in the Thatcherite mould – fiscal hawkishness and tight controls on public spending – placing him in direct confrontation with Cummings. With Javid gone, Downing Street has signalled that it intends to exert a tight rein on the new and less experienced Chancellor. This is a government increasingly centred around an even smaller pool of decision makers.

What does this mean for those who want to engage with government?

Firstly, it is even more crucial to define and refine your messaging to make it as compelling as possible for decision makers in Downing Street. Even if you’re targeting one department, this is not a government that will allow free rein. Decisions have always gone through Number 10 for approval, but now departmental initiatives will need to conform to a narrower set of priorities, with far closer oversight.

Secondly, consider how your ideas and solutions can help the Government achieve its central aims, specifically around improving the lives of those in the former ‘Red Wall’ constituencies, whilst reinforcing the potential that Brexit offers to the UK. Will the solutions to the problem you have identified be particularly beneficial to northern voters? Is there an application that could help improve school standards in these constituencies or contribute to improved infrastructure? How will your business help the UK thrive post Brexit?

Finally, find allies who can amplify your message to Downing Street. Despite the drive from No 10 to centralise power, it remains critical that you invest in establishing positive relationships across a wider swathe of Whitehall and Westminster. Create a wide network of policy and decision makers who understand your priorities and how you are helping to secure positive policy outcomes, such as select committee chairs, senior civil servants and regulators. This will give you the best opportunity of influencing policy and regulation in your market.

Written by Jamie Slavin, Senior Account Director, Brands2Life

To find out how the Brands2Life Public Affairs team can help your organisation with some of the challenges outlined above, please email publicaffairs@brands2life.com

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