Long read: inside No. 10, from July 2016 to July 2017

Chris Wilkins, who served as Theresa May’s strategy director until July 2017, gave this speech at our ‘Brexit and public opinion’ event:

I would like today, if I may, to talk a bit about the election, but also about the Government’s entire political strategy from the moment that Theresa May walked into Downing Street in July 2016. And that will inevitably lead to some reflections about what is, or perhaps more correctly what isn’t, going on today.

I don’t propose to go into great detail about the polling or research we conducted along the way. That’s in part because, when I walked out of Downing Street at the end of July last year I didn’t take a huge pile of files and folders with me. But also because there are no doubt many in this room today who are more expert and able to talk about those things than I am.

What I will do, however, is talk through the thinking that the polling inspired and attempt to set out some of the choices we faced. I will leave it to you to judge if we got those decisions right or wrong. I am quite sure that there are things we could have done differently at various point on the journey.

But I also agree with my good friend and colleague Nick Timothy who said earlier this week that, in his view, the political strategy of the government from July 2016 until the moment the election was called was right. And I continue to believe that the decision to call that election was right too.

So let’s start by looking back. And I want to go back further than those dreadful few weeks last year. Further indeed even than the period immediately before that.

I want to start during the time before my old boss even crossed the threshold of Number 10 for the first time.

It is July 2015. Much to its surprise, the Conservative Party has just won a majority in the general election and it’s clear that the promise it made – to hold an in/out referendum on the question of Europe – will have to be delivered.

Back in those days, I was undergoing one of my frequent – and seemingly rather futile – attempts to leave politics, having just stepped down from my role as special adviser to the education secretary Nicky Morgan in order to return to corporate life.

But with some time on my hands, I found myself sitting around a boardroom table not a million miles from here, offering some advice to the team that, in those days, represented the fledgling ‘remain’ campaign.

And the discussions that went on around that table were fascinating – and I think they tell us something about everything that has happened since, and about what we see happening even still today.

For the people around that table – most of them ardent Europhiles – were labouring under a misapprehension that we still seem to labour under now: namely, that the referendum was solely about the UK’s relationship with the European Union.

But that wasn’t so. And understanding that seems to me to be rather important.

Europe was a proxy, but the referendum was a melting pot into which people were able to throw every grievance they chose. Concerns about immigration. Weariness with austerity. Anger at public service failure. Nearly a decade of wage stagnation. Insecurity and the threat from terrorism. And the common thread between them all: the belief that politics and politicians had ignored these concerns for far too long.

That is why the advice I offered back in July 2015 was to focus not on Europe, but on these concerns. I said that unless the ‘remain’ campaign was seen to be listening to – and empathising with – the underlying factors that would drive people to vote, it would fail.

Only once a connection between what was, fundamentally, the political establishment and ordinary people had been made and these concerns had been understood, would the campaign be able to have a conversation with people about Europe and persuade them – however reluctantly – that we were better off in.

In other words, they needed to engage with the emotional argument that lay behind it all.

Now as you will have seen, they didn’t accept that advice and went in a different direction altogether. It’s becoming something of a theme.

But why am I telling this story? It’s for two reasons.

Firstly, because I think one of the really fascinating stories of British politics over the past two years or so is the failure of – let’s call them liberal centrists – to comprehend what has been going on and to figure out how to respond.

Even in those days before the referendum, when what they clearly needed to do was run a campaign based on engagement, empathy and values, they came up with a classic, remote, political campaign that merely reinforced the reasons why people would want to give them a bloody nose in the first place.

A campaign that showed how little they understood that values and emotions matter more in modern communication campaigns than appeals to naked self-interest – something we saw again in the general election last year.

And since the referendum, the struggle to respond has continued. There have been too few attempts to understand – and too many attempts to sneer and criticise. That is partly why, at every point over the past 18 months or so, the Brexiteers have been able to run rings around the Remainers, Remoaners, or whichever label you wish to choose. You would have thought they might have learned by now that the politics of ‘we told you so’ is not going to endear them to anyone, but apparently not.

And the second reason I wanted to tell this story is because it points to a wider truth. That while we are all fascinated by the technical arguments about Brexit; by constructs like the Single Market and the Customs Union; by critical – yet really quite inaccessible – decisions about things like Euratom – for most people, this is not really what Brexit is about.

Brexit is about so much more than this. It’s about a sense deep down within the country that things are not working as they should, and that something has to change. It’s about doing things differently. Shaking up the system. Not carrying on with politics as usual, but seizing the moment to take a different approach.

It’s about stepping back and asking ourselves what is working and what is not. Asking ourselves what kind of country we want the Britain of the future to be.

That means looking at everything anew. The way we educate and train our children. The way our economy works – or doesn’t work – for ordinary working people. The way we shape our communities and society. The way we advance opportunity. The way we conduct our politics and make the big decisions that matter to the future of our country.

That’s what Brexit is about. It’s what it has always been about. It’s about using this unique opportunity – this great national moment – to bring change to Britain.

And I make these points because I think they are central to understanding Theresa May’s premiership – both what’s gone right, and what’s gone wrong.

Because from the outset, she understood these things very well.

That is why on her first day in office, she spoke powerfully about working in the interests of ordinary working people, and of tackling the ‘burning injustices’ in our society – both because that is the right thing to do, but also because that sense of injustice, felt by too many people and communities, fuelled the drive towards Brexit… and getting to grips with those injustices is what Brexit is all about.

It is why during the first year of her premiership, she outlined a wide-ranging programme of economic and social reform to respond to the message of the referendum result.

And it is why it’s simply not true to say that she spoke only to the 52% and not the 48% during her first few months in Number 10. Indeed, her whole message was directed towards those who would regard themselves as being in the liberal centre of British politics – the 48% if you like.

It was a message from one of those 48% to the rest that said: “if we really want to hold on to the things in which you and I believe, the shock of Brexit should tell us that we are going to have to change”. That is a challenging message – too challenging for many – but the importance of it remains.

Because if you’re someone who thinks Brexit is bad, with Jeremy Corbyn looming on the horizon let me tell you that you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Which brings me to November 2016 and one particular incident I am reminded of from my time in Number 10. We were working on the draft of the Prime Minister’s speech to the Lord Mayor’s banquet in the City. And in the original draft, the opening section pretty much equated Brexit with the election of President Trump in America.

And this lead to some debate within the team: was Brexit a populist revolt, to be counted alongside other surprise results such as the election of The Donald in the US?

Or was it in fact a final warning – a last chance – that if handled correctly, would stave off that populist revolt that might yet be to come?

This is a really important question.

The view of Theresa May’s Number 10 is the latter. That Brexit is an opportunity to change the things that aren’t working and shape a better way for Britain. And the danger if you don’t seize that opportunity is that our country will be overwhelmed by a surge of genuine, unpleasant populism, with Jeremy Corbyn at its helm.

So this was the insight that drove the Government’s political strategy during the Prime Minister’s first year in Number 10. That, as the Prime Minister has put it so often, the referendum was not just a call to leave the European Union, but to “change the way our country works, and the people for whom it works, forever”.

And the need to do so was urgent.

It was an insight and a strategy that was tested successfully pretty much every week by members of my team in focus groups and opinion polling throughout the second half of 2016.

And it had the power to be a unifying proposition too, because however people had voted in the referendum, the message that came back at each stage was clear: please don’t talk about Brexit as a process. The decision is made. It’s time to move on. We want you to tell us what you are going to do with the opportunity of Brexit instead.

That, then, is what we sought to do. Throughout 2016, we worked on a new government narrative that framed this opportunity very clearly and sought to broaden the definition of Brexit to encompass the wide range of domestic reforms that the Prime Minister outlined at various points throughout that year.

There would be a new push on school standards, to spread opportunity to all parts of the country and ensure the school system was fair to everyone, not just those who could afford to pay. Because that’s what Brexit is about.

A new industrial strategy would be introduced to tackle the long-standing weaknesses in the British economy, ensure prosperity was shared more equitably across the country, and help to power the high-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future. Because that’s what Brexit is about.

There would be a new focus on skills training, with money set aside to implement the Sainsbury reforms in full and give skills training genuine parity with academic education for the first time. That was how we would train young people to seize the opportunities of Brexit – how we would prepare them to do the jobs they would need to do in a post-Brexit world. Again, because that’s what Brexit is about.

And underpinning the agenda was a commitment to a single value: fairness.

Time and again, our research showed us that the dominant concern people had was that life wasn’t fair. That there seemed to be one rule for some, and another rule for everyone else.

So fairness became the dominant value to which we worked.

That’s why the Prime Minister set out plans to reform the economy and ensure big business was living up to its responsibilities and treating people fairly. It’s why the Taylor Review was launched, to ensure workers in the new ‘gig’ economy were not disadvantaged but were treated fairly too. It’s why the focus was put on things like mental health and the disparity in public service outcomes caused by someone’s race – all things that sought to bring fairness where previously there was none.

And, driven by the research, all of this was placed in the context of the referendum. Because what the research told us was that, while people didn’t want us to talk about the process of Brexit, they did see everything through that prism. That meant explaining our actions as a response to the referendum result, taking up the mantle of change, and treating each announcement as part of a package that would deliver the true promise of Brexit.

This agenda – with its focus on the broadest possible interpretation of Brexit, on ordinary working people – or at times specifically the so-called ‘just about managing’ – and critically, on a vision for the kind of country we wanted Britain to be, was brought together in the Lancaster House speech a year ago this month, where we first talked, quite deliberately, about our ‘Plan for Britain’, rather than just a Plan for Brexit.

The Plan for Britain was developed further and launched formally in March, with four core themes: a stronger economy, a fairer society, a united nation, and a global Britain.

And this agenda was successful. Focus groups showed that it was working, and that the Prime Minister was viewed as someone who genuinely understood people’s lives. She was seen as a unifying figure who had begun to transcend – or perhaps more correctly rise above – party politics: who was, at the very least, a different kind of Tory. The agenda bought her some time, giving her an extended honeymoon in Number 10 as people of many different backgrounds were prepared to grant her the benefit of the doubt.

It was no more than that. While we felt we were on the right track, we knew that the extraordinary poll lead was exaggerated and couldn’t last. In particular, we knew that as the difficult Brexit talks progressed, as the inevitable messy compromises took hold, and as elements of the parliamentary Conservative Party faced inevitable disappointment, the honeymoon would end.

And we also knew where our weakness lay. It was with the group of predominantly younger, urban, liberal voters who were – in many ways – the basis of David Cameron’s voting coalition. The ‘Conservative Leaners’ as they were described in our segmentation. The people who were most disappointed by the referendum result.

That is why the optimism and framing of the Lancaster House speech and the subsequent Plan for Britain was so important. Because if you talk about Brexit to that group of people – if you are seen to be obsessed by it as a matter of ideology and don’t, instead, focus on how you will make the most of the opportunities it brings – you turn them off.

It’s why for this group, ‘owning’ Brexit in its narrowest sense is potentially a disaster for the Conservative Party. It is why we must be able to offer them more. Why we can’t allow ourselves to be defined by Brexit alone.

We saw that in the election. And I don’t think it helps to draw a distinction here between a so-called ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. I don’t think we lost this group during the election because we were talking about a ‘hard’ Brexit. We lost them because we seemed to be obsessed with Brexit, full stop.

Our strategy was to do the opposite. Reach out to this critical group of voters by focusing on the vision, the opportunity. Implement Brexit yes because that’s what the country voted for, but look beyond that to the kind of country we want to be as we emerge from our membership of the European Union.

So this was the context for the decision to go to the country last June.

We felt that we had a clear strategy, researched and refined over many months. A strategy that was polling well, had delivered success in Copeland – and, by the way, would go on to deliver success in the local and mayoral elections in May.

We knew that the poll lead was broad but shallow, which gave us a window of opportunity to capitalise on it before the difficulties of the Brexit negotiations really began to kick in.

And we knew that the key to the Conservative Party’s ability to renew itself after 7 years in government was to respond to the wider desire for bold economic and social reform that the referendum had revealed. We knew that elections were always about a simple choice: change versus more of the same. And in a post-referendum world, we had to be the candidate of change.

And then the response to the Budget – and the Chancellor’s ill-judged attempt to fiddle with the National Insurance system – brought home to us the cold reality that the Prime Minister needed her own mandate to deliver that change. She could no longer be shackled to a manifesto of someone else’s design. A manifesto that was unsuited to the challenges of the day.

And there was, of course, one final, compelling argument. With the Brexit talks due to conclude in 2019 – and with a UK general election on the horizon in 2020 – we felt the country would be in a weak negotiating position as the end of the talks drew near. Shifting the electoral timetable to give ourselves a stronger hand was a vital part of the plan.

But, of course, that plan pretty soon fell apart.

The first mistake was one of timing. Our initial plan, knowing that politics was highly volatile and recognising that the poll lead was exaggerated and fragile, was for a quick, snap campaign lasting around four weeks.

I am on record elsewhere as saying that I regret not stepping in to halt things once it became clear that the four-week campaign was not possible and that an agonising seven-week campaign loomed. That was probably my greatest mistake.

Then we made a mistake in our campaign strategy. Having triggered Article 50, our initial plan had been to try and park the process of Brexit as an issue and campaign for a mandate for the wider programme of economic and social reform that the Prime Minister wanted to implement. In other words, this was to be a campaign focused on the Government’s domestic reform agenda – our Plan for Britain.

We envisaged a policy rich campaign in which the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party would clearly be the change candidate. Clearly, that didn’t happen. We talked about stability, rather than change. And we made Brexit the central issue – a move that could not have been more clearly designed to drive away those critical liberal, remain voters if it tried.

And they were the critical group in this election, as I believe we have seen again with the findings of the British Election Survey this week. Our strategy was always to lock in the Cameron voting coalition and then build out from there to bring in others, many of whom had perhaps traditionally voted Labour.

This meant we had to perform a delicate balancing act. But by the time of the election campaign, the latter group could have been in no doubt as to where we stood on Brexit.

They did not need to be convinced. Our task was to convince our soft underbelly – the younger, more liberal part of the Cameron coalition – that they should stick with us because we had a broader Plan for Britain with which they could agree.

This was the great strategic blind spot of our campaign.

Finally, we made a mistake in our communications plan. And we did that in two ways.

Firstly, by making it a highly presidential campaign focused on the Prime Minister, when she herself had based her career on being anything other than a presidential style politician. As I have said elsewhere, we ended up in the ridiculous situation where a politician who had founded her career on unflashy, quiet competence was suddenly travelling around the country in a bus with her name on it.

Secondly, we – like the ‘Remain’ campaign before us – failed to recognise the important role that values and emotions play in modern politics. We thought that firing targeted messages at ever narrower groups of the population was the route to success, when what is required in modern political campaigning is a broad message that speaks to the values and emotions of a wide group of the electorate; and helps to build the broadest possible voting coalition as a result.

And the legacy of those mistakes will sadly be with us for quite some time. It’s about more than the loss of a majority and some excellent, hardworking candidates and Members of Parliament along the way.

Because of the nature of the campaign, the Conservative Party is now inextricably associated with Brexit – and seen to be putting the pursuit of it above all else. The full consequences of that for the long-term future of the Party are not yet known, but banging on about Europe to the exclusion of all else has not been a successful strategy in the past and I see no reason why it should be so now.

Even if the negotiations over the coming months come to be regarded as a success – and however great a deal the Prime Minister comes back with, I find it very hard to see how one group or another will not come to denounce it as a betrayal – the Conservative Party’s obsession with Brexit to the exclusion of all else will likely be punished by the critical swing voters next time around. And, indeed, the time after that.

That is particularly true if the broader message of the referendum – the need for wider change in the country – is not heard and acted upon at the same time. Indeed, if the election campaign taught us anything it is that there remains a great demand for change – and that the Prime Minister’s original strategy was right.

We knew before the election that the public had had enough of austerity, were concerned about the cost of living and the impact of the public sector pay cap, and wanted a greater focus on public services and on the opportunities that were available to young people. All our research had revealed this to be true. Why we did so little to respond to this during the campaign remains something of a mystery. Now post-election – and to quote the Prime Minister – ‘nothing has changed’. They are still deeply concerned about the same things.

Yet because elements of the Conservative Party think that leaving the European Union is all that matters – and because they feared when the election result came in that that precious prize was suddenly about to be ripped from their grasp – they very quickly and effectively argued after the election that everything else should be set aside and that this was now a ‘Brexit government’.

That is why others are frustrated about the extent of the Government’s ambition today. It is not because the process of Brexit naturally overwhelms everything else, but because too many in the Conservative Party are ready to argue that it should.

I would contend, however, that the Theresa May I know – the person who strode onto a stage in Bournemouth 15 years ago and challenged the Conservative Party to change, the Chairman who took on the party machine and shook things up so that today the Party looks more like the country it seeks to serve than it would otherwise have done, the Home Secretary who faced down the policing establishment and forced them to reform while tackling the injustice of stop and search, the Prime Minister who instantly – and more than any other politician – grasped the ramifications of the referendum result and set out a bold agenda of economic and social reform in response – is the very person we need to see leading the country today.

Because we need that boldness that she has displayed so often throughout her career. And we need it now more than ever.

That, surely, is the true lesson of the election. It’s not that we need ‘more’ Brexit. It’s that we need more of everything else. More of the things the Prime Minister originally talked about.

More about the changes we will make, the reforms we will put in place, more about the drive for greater fairness as we build a country that works for everyone, not just a privileged few. More about the country we will be as we make our own way in the world outside the European Union. A stronger, fairer, global, United Kingdom.

A year ago this month, the Prime Minister stood on a platform at Lancaster House just down the road and concluded her speech by saying that her ambition was not simply to “form a new partnership with Europe” but to “build a stronger, fairer, more Global Britain too”.

 And she went on:

“let that be the legacy of our time,” she said. “The prize towards which we work. The destination at which we arrive once the negotiation is done.

 And let us do it not for ourselves, but for those who follow. For the country’s children and grandchildren too. 

So that when future generations look back at this time, they will judge us not only by the decision that we made, but by what we made of that decision”.

That remains the challenge for this Government – and for us all. To make the most of the decision.

That means getting the details of Brexit right of course, for that is the basis of everything else. But it also means doing far more and returning to the wide-ranging reform agenda that proved to be so successful before the general election.

Because the alternative is Jeremy Corbyn. And then we’ll discover what a real populist revolt is all about.

By Chris Wilkins, former chief speechwriter to prime minister Theresa May and ex-director of strategy at Number 10.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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  • Charles Anderson

    An interesting speech. Chris correctly identifies that Europe was proxy for all manner of ills and discontent. But “getting the details of Brexit right” is not going to fix any of them for left behinds, and as he points out at the moment “liberal remain voters” are lost to the Conservatives.

    Brexit has overtaken everything. Surely political survival for the Conservatives and a better way forward for the country would be to call a 2nd referendum and hope that this time people vote on the issue, and not protest their discontent.

  • at every point over the past 18 months or so, the Brexiteers have been able to run rings around the Remainers […]

    by prematurely triggering Art 50, agreeing to a ‘Vassal state’ transition period, 50+ billion payments, continued ECJ jurisdiction, and “In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union.”

    I don’t know any Remainer that expected to be outwitted by such a cunning plan. Well done.

  • John Speed

    A very interesting speech, but I am amazed at the extraordinary naivety of the initial approach, to “park” Brexit while focusing on the real problems facing the UK. It was totally unrealistic to push to one side the one issue that was dominating debate. And certainly there was a total, but total failure to get across that this was what Theresa May was about.

    And I am sceptical that this was the real motivation. The referendum was narrowly won by the Leavers. Since then May has failed totally to reach out to the 48% who wanted to remain, she has continued at each stage to take decisions which pander to the views of the Brexiteer Ultras. And they are never satisfied, May should have been aware of that. And why has she come out with phrases like “citizens of nowhere” for people who, like me, believe that being British and European means something. An extraordinary insult, penned, I understand by that bearded advisor somebody Timothy. All of which undermines Mr Wilkins thesis. Or shows just how totally it failed.

    How much of the article is an attempt at ex post rationalisation in face of the disastrous chaos that we are faced with today?

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