- October 12, 2016
- Public affairs
Conservative Party Conference; Birmingham – 2016
You could sum the mood up at the recent Conservative party conference in Birmingham in one word: excited. There was a popular new Prime Minister, leading a majority in Westminster. In Scotland the Conservatives had overtaken Labour to become the main opposition at Holyrood. And of course there was the result of the EU Referendum.
While the party had been split at its highest levels – with even Mrs May an apparently reluctant Remainer – the majority of so-called ‘grassroots’ activists were in favour of Brexit. But there was one question on everyone’s lips– would they find out what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ actually means?
Conservative PMs and Ministers have a difficult communications task to handle at every Conference. They are preaching to the converted inside the hall, but also to an often critical media base outside it, and of course the country as a whole too. Nothing typifies this changing dynamic more than the fact that any policy of note is pre-briefed to the media; so delegates need only review the Daily Telegraph over their bacon and eggs rather than dutifully sit through the speeches.
With Brexit dominating the agenda both inside and outside the Conference halls, the Prime Minister took the unusual step of speaking on Sunday rather than waiting for her closing keynote on Wednesday. The speech on Sunday was sold as an opportunity to give clarity ahead of a Brexit dominated conference and aimed to move the debate on from Leave or Remain, Hard or Soft Brexit. But it had other effects.
The most obvious result of the speech was a dramatic fall in the value of Sterling as the phoney war ended and markets perhaps realised that Brexit did in fact mean Brexit – not just ‘breakfast’ as a Welsh Conservative “misspoke’ in their speech. This gave business leaders and their organisations – many like the CBI represented at Conference – the chance to put forward a case for a ‘softer’ Brexit both to delegates and the wider public. Conservatives were left to grapple with whether they disliked the EU or economic instability more.
This meant debate raged on around the halls, fringe events and hotel bars for three days until the Prime Minister took to the stage again on Wednesday. Home Secretary Amber Rudd added fuel to the fire with a misjudged speech that aimed to satisfy ‘hard’ Brexiters with moves to ‘name and shame’ companies employing foreign workers – remarks quickly dubbed xenophobic by the press and political opposition.
Whether planned or not, in her keynote it was clear the Prime Minister felt the need to subtly row back the hard-line rhetoric, and deploy much more conciliatory messaging. Her warm-up by the centrist, Remain supporting, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, aimed to soften the Brexit tone, particularly on immigration.
Second time on the podium, the Prime Minister spoke much more to the nation and much less to the Conference delegates. More about what Government could do for schools, “defending the NHS”, cracking down on corporate and super-rich tax avoiders. Of access and opportunity. Brexit was only a footnote. Once again the applause was long in the room.
The Prime Minister’s ‘pivot’ is a communications tactic all leaders can learn from. She started by speaking to her internal stakeholders in a language and tone they understood and responded positively to – seeding some of the messages to external media. She allowed the debate to progress, internally and externally, and then responded to it with a subtle change in tone and direction, supported by complementary messaging from a key senior member of her team (Ruth Davidson) who spoke to this broader audience. She didn’t contradict or retract what had been said before but changed the nature of the debate, pivoting from the geo-political to the everyday and with it staking herself in the centre ground of politics, vacated, so she claimed, by Corbyn’s Labour.
Mrs May’s challenge at the start of her Premiership is much like that of a new CEO, coming in after a predecessor has resigned. She has to ensure the support of her internal stakeholders (be they members or employees) by demonstrating an understanding of the organisation’s core values. She has to reposition herself as distinct from her predecessor while acknowledging their success. She has to be aware that while consistency of message is important it must also be adaptable to address the concerns of a wider group of external stakeholders, who may be less convinced of her abilities and overall strategy.