There is something wonderful, almost French, about Brighton seafront on a cold sunny day like today. I was so taken with the light and the fresh air that I enjoyed a little stroll before heading to one of the big hotels on the front to speak at a conference of public services communications professionals. This is one majorly worried group, what with public services under attack, and communications an easy target.
As I walked I thought of major moments in my life that had involved that front. The big party conferences, and some of the most important speeches in TB’s career. The time Peter M threw a punch (of sorts) in a dispute about whether TB should wear a tie or not. At the other end of the sublime-ridiculous scale, the September 11 attacks, which happened as TB was about to speak to the TUC, where he got his single standing ovation from them, when he announced he wasn’t going to make the speech because he had to go back to London.
Then there was the Brighton bomb aimed at wiping out Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet, one of the biggest stories I ever covered, which led to one of the biggest benders of my life, and a bout of alcohol poisoning after two weeks of non-stop work cum old style Fleet St end-of-every-day drinking.
So all that reminiscing before coming back to the sharp cold reality of today, and a new mood set by George Osborne. Some are already falling victim to the cuts, like the former colleague who commented here yesterday that he had worked with me on a review of government communications way back when, and yesterday got his redundancy papers. There is going to be a lot of it about, and despite the weather and the beauty of the light and the sea, there was a lot of apprehension around at the conference.
I took a call on the way from a council chief executive who said lots of councils had been cutting to the bone in advance of the announcement, so the idea that there was lots of spare fat still to chop out was one he found difficult to square with reality, let alone the government’s stated aim of continuing to deliver good services.
I tried my best not to get too party political and to give a dispassionate analysis of what was going on. And as I did so, I pointed out that George Osborne was obeying a fair few of the golden rules of strategic communications. Having a clear objective (slashing the deficit) backed up by a clear strategy (massive public sector cuts, made whilst claiming there is no alternative because the last lot messed it up — neither supporting statement wholly true, but another rule of strategic comms is that once you get a line you never tire of saying it, especially if it is difficult for your opponents).
Looking a bit more into the small print of the CSR, the sheer scale of broken promises became more apparent. And here’s where the Tories were blessed with good luck in not winning the election outright. It didn’t feel like that for them at the time, but both they and their Lib Dem partners are able to get away with far more broken promises – for now – by overdoing the stuff about Labour, making utterly false claims about ‘the books’ being worse than they expected, and then telling their supporters they accept responsibility for the good bits of any joint package, and blame the other side of the coalition for the things they are a bit more iffy about. Sob sob for Nick Clegg as he tells Lib Dems on a conference call how gutted he was about reneging on his tuition fees pledge.
Let’s just rewind to the election. As I said this morning, on any rational analysis of electoral factors, Cameron should have walked it. An economic crisis. Expenses – and although all parties were hit, clearly it hit the governing party hardest. Iraq back in the political area because of the inquiry. Afghanistan in a bad place politically not least because of the Tories constantly banging on about our troops being badly equipped (something of a bad joke in the light of the defence review). Plus GB being pretty battered and ‘time for a change’ being a powerful political impulse.
So why didn’t DC win? Answer: because the electorate were unsure about his strategic purpose for the country. And in their own unique way, they gave him one – see if you can make a coalition government work. They didn’t want us back. But they didn’t want the Tories back unchanged from what they remembered and what they had rejected so comprehensively three times over.
So they threw a curveball, and Cameron and Nick Clegg decided to catch it. Bold stuff. But yesterday was if anything more significant than that original coalition deal, many parts of which will be lying in tatters come the next election.
What it all means is that we have ended up with public sector cuts far deeper than anything Maggie would have gone for, and despite the rhetoric, far more targeted at the poor than those with the broad shoulders George keeps talking about.
There were a fair few local authority people there today. And they really have been chucked a curveball too. They are being told ‘you can have far more freedom to decide what to spend on. But a lot less to spend.’ So that when the local services get axed, George is hoping it is the local politicians who cop it. Meanwhile he envisages the private sector rushing in to fill the huge gaps he is creating. It is certainly bold. But the chances of it working are unproven, and possibly seriously crazy.
Meanwhile it is surely an irony that if the public had given the Tories a majority, it is doubtful they would have dared propose so many of the cuts announced yesterday. Cameron and Osborne really do owe bigtime to Clegg and Danny Alexander.
That’s the other thing you need in any strategic comms plan – third party endoresments from people who will support you whatever you say or do.