‘Next election probably lost, so look to one after’: a crisis PR’s advice to Tories
Crisis expert Kate Hartley recommends that the Conservative party not rush to decide the next leader but take the time to find the right leader.
How should the government respond to the current crisis? / No 10
The shortest-serving PM is a record no one wants to hold. Truss was right to call time on her 44-day tenure. No one minds a course correction to fix a problem, but when you have to U-turn on your entire vision then it’s time to go. She leaves the country in crisis and her party in tatters.
Who’s going to want to take this mess on? It’s almost guaranteed to end in short-term failure. Her replacement will need to be someone with the long-term interests of the country at their heart – not someone with a point to prove, not someone who cares above all else about their own political advancement, not someone who is only interested in the short-time survival of this government. Know anyone?
Putting my personal political beliefs aside, if I was advising this government (or any organization in crisis) I’d tell them to think long-term – beyond this crisis, beyond staying in office for the next year and beyond the next election. What do you want to achieve as a result of the crisis? To scramble to stay in power right now or to form a credible government in the future? Short-term thinking is a human survival instinct – useful for dodging a swerving car but less so for long-term survival. The next election is probably lost anyway, so forget about it and look to the one after. Plan how to recover your reputation to be able to win in five years.
How do you start that process? By acknowledging the problem and showing you’re doing something about it. In any crisis, people want to see action to make amends for what’s gone wrong. That starts with calling an election. To do otherwise looks increasingly like a party losing control, clinging to power, with no vision and no leader.
Then, go back to basics. What does the party want to be known for? Truss wanted to be associated with low tax, high growth, but she’ll be remembered for unaffordable mortgages, spiraling debt and reducing taxes for the rich. We’ll never know whether her trickle-down plan would have worked, but we will remember a feeling that a lot of it just didn’t seem right at a time when people are struggling to heat their homes or pay for the weekly shop. Removing a cap on bankers’ bonuses or reducing tax on the highest incomes might be financially viable, but is it fair?
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Listen to what people really need. Respond with empathy. Get the right people in the room who are close to voters. Listen to all sides – take the blinkers off and encourage constructive disagreement but pull people together by encouraging them to see things from another’s point of view. Who are the people most affected by the crisis? In this case, it’s the public. Use good polling data and listen to them.
Don’t rush into deciding the next leader. Appoint a caretaker PM to calm the markets and deal with the immediate crisis and take the time you need to find the right person to lead the party over the next six years. Finding the right leader is a massive challenge. They need integrity, honesty, the ability to heal rifts and unite divisions, and to be a safe pair of hands. Choosing from a shortlist of candidates who’ve either failed one contest or been responsible for creating division in the past is a terrible idea. (And if Boris comes back, we’ll be even more of a laughingstock internationally.)
There’s talk about whether the voting membership should all get behind one person, to reduce division in the party and avoid the political slanging matches we went through earlier in the year. I think that’s missing the point. Good leadership is more than personality and, while you need the right person in charge, the party should be bigger than its leader. People unite behind a vision, a goal, an ambition, an aspiration. Uniting behind a personality makes you look like a cult.
And, to paraphrase what the leadership coach and author Mark Fritz told me once: “Beware of only having one option. You’ll be forced to believe it’s a good one.”
Kate Hartley is the co-founder of crisis simulation and training company Polpeo and author of Communicate in a Crisis.