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Theresa May

Lame Duck: would a new name and a new leader revive the Lib Dems?

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Lame Duck: would a new name and a new leader revive the Lib Dems?

With the hard left tightening its grip on Labour and the hard right dictating to a Conservative Prime Minister, there are millions of voters in the centre ground of British politics looking for a moderate, progressive party to call home. As Brexit reaches a crescendo this autumn, Atlas Director Vanessa Pine argues this should present a huge opportunity for the Lib Dems.

 

A little over a year into the job, the question for Vince Cable as he addresses the party’s annual gathering in Brighton is why those voters are not already flocking to the #libdemfightback? My erstwhile boss was the only person willing to put himself forward as leader after Tim Farron resigned in June 2017. Despite the coronation, Vince got a pretty poor inheritance from his predecessor. The party infrastructure was hollowed out, its volunteers and coffers drained by the defeat of the General Election. From when I first started volunteering in 2005, we’ve dropped from 62 to 12 MPs in Parliament. The party has spent the last seven years in single figures and endured a steady loss of council seats. To borrow a phrase from Sky’s Adam Boulton the “grassroots are parched.”

 

But this May, the Lib Dems secured their best local election results for 15 years. The current expectation is that 2019 will deliver more. The post-referendum membership surge continues to hold above 100,000. Two years ago, the Lib Dems ploughed a lonely furrow, calling for a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal. That call is now being embraced by people up and down the country and a growing number of politicians from other parties – most recently the Women’s Equality Party and Conservatives for a People’s vote.

 

Self-inflicted wounds…

 

It’s not clear why then, with things finally starting to move in the right direction, the Lib Dem Leader has chosen this moment to kick off a “going out in a blaze of glory” tour. His well-intentioned answer to the centre ground opportunity has been to suggest reforms to broaden the party into a movement, welcoming talent and support from outside. But a proposal to allow non-MPs to lead the party was read as implicit criticism of the talents of the current crop of MPs. There have been other needlessly self-inflicted wounds – not necessarily of his making – a no show at key Brexit vote, briefing a leadership speech weeks in advance that naturally gave rise to resignation speculation. This week even going as far as accepting the suggestion that the party could adopt a new name. It is to his credit that he has shown vision for the movement beyond his own tenure. But Vince has appeared a little too keen to embrace the idea of a “new” centrist party, to the detriment of his own.

 

Having announced his impending departure, the Lib Dem leader has made himself “an irrelevant lame duck” in the eyes of the lobby journalists. Those who are fed up with the Westminster Village soap opera may well say, who cares? Why do we pander to the myopic concerns of the dead tree media anyway? The practical answer is that harnessing their interest is vital if the party is to get the cut through it so desperately needs to support its campaigns. There is frustration at every level over the lack of the media coverage for Lib Dem stories, from the hard-working press team, to the activists and the armchair members.

 

Yet, the party has consistently underfunded its digital and social campaigning function, so it can’t match Corbyn’s efforts to bypass the so-called ‘MSM’ and speak directly to its base. Ten years ago, Facebook was a niche start-up, now over a quarter (26%) of the world’s population use it daily. YouTube gets more hits than Google. Video is king. And the Lib Dems are facing this digital age with an analogue leader. But this challenge goes far beyond the leadership. Lib Dems, always famed for their pavement bashing grassroots army, now need a digital one to match.  We should recruit and train volunteers who can weave politics and policy into visual stories. A dramatic investment in digital campaigning capacity is needed to spread the party’s messages beyond Brexit.

 

This weekend, party members from across the UK descend on Brighton for their annual conference. They will discuss reforms and policies that should help generate the boldly liberal ideas that, just might, engage those centrist, progressive, moderate voters that we need to win. I will be there too, hoping something can yet be done to save the Lib Dems from themselves. But it could be worse, instead of heading to the beach at Brighton I could be arriving in Liverpool as members of the Labour Party will be next week, facing a far bigger crisis of confidence in the leadership and direction of my tribe.

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If only Brexit wasn't so, you know, Brexity...

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If only Brexit wasn't so, you know, Brexity...

Let’s exercise our imagination for a second. 

In an alternate universe, Theresa May is the champion of the consumer, defender of JAMs, and lynchpin of Conservative majority rule following a landslide victory in the 2017 General Election, where her “nothing has changed” campaign won advertising awards for its cut through, simplicity, and honesty. In this timeline, May’s agenda is in full swing: house building is on the up, tax avoidance is decreasing, and the UK is the fastest growing economy in the G7. Oh and, of course, Brexit hasn’t occurred (let’s skip over the fact Cameron and Osborne might still be around). 

Sounds like utopia?

Back to reality and the Prime Minister's initiatives to defend consumers from broken markets are side-lined, the JAMs (Just About Managing families) are forgotten – along with her dream team of Nick and Fiona – and her majority rule is dependent on thirteen unruly Northern Irish DUP MPs who seem to be the only people in Parliament enjoying themselves…

As the news and parliamentary agendas constantly remind us, Brexit is all consuming. It is not simply an innocent bystander in the log jam that is Government policy. It is the roadblock, stretching from Trafalgar Square to the end of Victoria Street, from Holyrood to the Senedd and over the sea to Stormont. No elected official or civil servant can escape it.

 

NO ESCAPE

May and her Cabinet are desperate for alternative news stories. Their agenda (I’ll let you know when I actually find out what it is) is being lost in the day-to-day in-fighting of what type of Brexit we might negotiate. Will it be hard, will it be soft? Will we be in the customs union, a customs union, or none at all. Never has the indefinite article carried more meaning. 

But amidst all this non-debate, a serious issue is growing. Domestic policy is languishing. The NHS is still experiencing its worst ever winter crisis; the number of homeless has reached 275,000, with over 4,500 rough sleepers nationwide (a 175% rise since 2010); and the standard of social care has reached critical levels as Councils fail to balance the books after 8-years of austerity. One Council had their budget deemed “unlawful” by their auditors earlier this year. 

Major infrastructure decisions such as on Crossrail 2, Heathrow, HS3 and the urgent repair work on the Houses of Parliament are kicked down the road (again). Emergency services reaction times have grown as pressure on their limited resources increases. Rural public transport routes continue to be disbanded, leaving elderly citizens cut off from vital links to their communities – exasperated even further by the recent ‘Beast of the East’ weather surge. 

In Whitehall, over 600 civil servants are feverishly working within DexEU (Department for Exiting the European Union) and DIT (Department for International Trade) – although what the latter is actually doing at the moment is anyone’s guess (air miles are great if you can get them). This doesn’t even include the teams working within other Government Departments on how Brexit affects separate sectors: from farming, to air travel, to immigration, down to manufacturing standards. 

600 people who could be, and IMHO would love to be, working on any number of the issues mentioned above, rather than dealing with the consequences of Brexit.

 

A WAY FORWARD

So how can the Government find the time to focus on other priorities? In short, only with great difficulty.

Last Friday’s keynote speech by the Prime Minister on (you guessed it) Brexit provided some breathing space and allowed the media team, led by Robbie Gibb, to control the news cycle for the first time in months. May’s homebuilding initiative launched smoothly, and the choreographed State Visit of Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia would have led headlines if it weren’t for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Salisbury. 

But this is the problem, only a landmark Brexit speech by the Prime Minister herself can push Brexit off the news cycle long enough for one announcement to sneak in, then, like an angrier version of Boris, Brexit screeches back into the limelight. 

The respite is just not long enough.

MPs want to help their constituents and focus on the issues they care about most. Our job as communications and public affairs professionals is to get that cut through. To ensure the issues are debated, challenged, and now more than ever, pushed forward. If you want help getting round the all consuming dementor that is Brexit to get your issue on the political agenda, we are here to help you conjure your patronus.

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Brexit goes nuclear...

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Brexit goes nuclear...

Little known before this week, the European nuclear co-ordination treaty, Euratom, has become the latest dividing line in Brexit negotiations. With consumer fears about life saving cancer treatments being threatened, a commons majority looks to be forming against one of Downing Street's Brexit red lines...

 

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#GE2017 - that's a wrap folks

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#GE2017 - that's a wrap folks

Theresa May's aim was to secure a strong and definitive mandate for her premiership, ideology, and negotiating position in the upcoming Brexit talks. This morning’s results left that aim in tatters. She moved quickly today to try to cement her position, using the onset of the Brexit talks as an excuse to plough on. Brandishing a new working relationship with the latest power brokers in Westminster - Northern Ireland’s DUP - as her way of creating a majority, without anyone spelling out what exactly this means for either party. Cue a huge spike in google searches across the country as people asked 'who are the DUP'. The Institute for Government has written about the leverage of the smaller parties in the new Parliament and what that means for forthcoming Brexit talks. 

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Hung up on you.

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Hung up on you.

So, once again politics proves itself the pre-eminent force at springing surprises. As in 2010, we have a hung parliament but, unlike seven years ago, it seems there is little prospect of a formal coalition. 

With the Conservatives still the largest party but short of a working majority, this morning's speculation centres around a future minority Conservative government, propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party. We've already started analysing their manifesto to see what they proposed but one clear policy was their support for Brexit. As we have said before - the only thing that is certain in the next little while is uncertainty. Get in touch if you have questions. 

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#GE2017 - 4 Weeks to Go...

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#GE2017 - 4 Weeks to Go...

As we approach June 8th, Atlas will be sending through a Friday round-up of news, anecdotes, and current polling to help you keep abreast of the latest campaign trail developments.

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Scotland's Choice

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Scotland's Choice

We're pleased to share an update from our friends in Scotland, Pagoda Porter Novelli, on the latest round of debate about independence. Keith Geddes is the Policy Director at Pagoda Porter Novelli and can be contacted here. He argues that for the First Minister the stakes are high. Historical precedence is not on her side either with both leaders who called the 2014 referendum and the Brexit referendum resigning when the outcome was not one they had supported. Undoubtedly if Nicola Sturgeon were to lose, she too would have to step down.

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Is our Brexit hangover finally over?

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Is our Brexit hangover finally over?

One unwelcome development past the age of 30 is the two-day hangover. This year the United Kingdom is 310 years old – which presumably means its propensity to feel tired, grumpy and slightly nauseous after a big event is even more extensive. Two hundred or so days on since the referendum, are we finally getting over our Brexit hangover?

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Lords reform, the saga continues..

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Lords reform, the saga continues..

As you settle down by the fire with a glass of something, Atlas Partners, co-founder Charles Napier offers a longer read on the prospect of House of Lords reform and why it may never come. 

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Is ‘Industrial Strategy’ a platform for Theresa May’s legacy?

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Is ‘Industrial Strategy’ a platform for Theresa May’s legacy?

A national industrial strategy was a key pillar of government policy throughout post-war Britain until Margaret Thatcher effectively outlawed the phrase in Conservative circles, and indeed the national dialogue, in the search for market liberalisation and competition. This coincided with the beginning of the decline of manufacturing in the UK. Between 1980 and 2010, the UK manufacturing and production sector, as a total percentage of GDP, declined from 45% to below 20%, with cities such as Birmingham, Sheffield and Sunderland diminishing in the face of international competition and falling global prices. Whether the two are related is still hotly disputed to this day.

We look at what the Prime Minister is trying to gain by [re-]introducing an industrial strategy, and what it means for UK policy.

 

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Three important people you've (probably) never heard of...

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Three important people you've (probably) never heard of...

The quality of our future arrangements with the EU and the rest of the world will be directly related to the calibre of the teams negotiating them. Right now, across all Government Departments there is a rapid scramble to assemble those teams to deliver the best Brexit deal possible. 

Given yesterday's turn of events we await the appointment of a new 'Brexit' Minister in Theresa May's new cabinet. Commentators are tipping, Leave campaigner, current leader of the Commons and May's campaign organiser, Chris Grayling for the role. Beyond that key appointment, who will be quantifying the civil service skills gap, driving the recruitment and ultimately presenting our new Prime Minister with the scenario plans and costed options from which they will determine their trade negotiation mandate?

Read on to meet the three men (yes, all men) you may never have heard of who will play a key role over the next few months.

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In the brave new world of 'Brexit' - what now?

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In the brave new world of 'Brexit' - what now?

Despite the fact that we will have a new Prime Minister by Wednesday, we know the only thing we can be certain of in the next 6 months is uncertainty. Today we are sharing our take on the brave new world of ‘Brexit’ and some practical tips for businesses and organisations trying to catch up with our fluid political landscape.

Above and beyond your business as usual public affairs engagement, what can you do now? How will 'Brexit' be implemented and who are the key players? For a quick check list click here but for a more detailed update read on.

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