Amy Selman: How to be a campaigner and a governor – lessons from Johnson’s time as London’s mayor

16 Nov

Amy Selman was policy adviser to Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London from 2010-2016.

Much was written about the personalities of the key players within Downing Street this week – and the consequent drama and intrigue captures the interest of the Westminster classes.

Less headline-grabbing are the methods of working which may also need a refresh in order to reassure Conservative MPs that the Prime Minister’s team is working for one of their ultimate goals – re-election in their constituencies.

It is too glib to say that campaigners can’t deliver in government. MPs know this because of the impressive record of many of their local council leaders, who tend to stay in office for longer, and run successful re-election campaigns.

In London as Mayor, Boris Johnson snapped up key local leaders, from Stephen Greenhalgh, Mike Freer and Theresa O’Neill (then leaders of Hammersmith & Fulham, Barnet and Bexley councils respectively), to replicate at the city level what they had done for their boroughs.

This team, managed first by Simon Milton as Chief of Staff, and then by Edward Lister, helped the Mayor run a united team of both civil servants and politicians. Some observations:

Gearing everything towards delivery – publish a traffic light system

The first is that the machinery of government can and wants to work for you, and the best way to consolidate that is through your manifesto.

Leaders are elected on a platform, and the civil service’s duty is to help execute it. A focus on delivering policies that voters chose is key to getting the machinery working. At City Hall, this was done by a diligent senior team who produced a monthly traffic light scoresheet for each 2012 manifesto commitment, and brought those in charge of implementing it to an Investment and Performance Board, with minutes that were almost wholly public.

This meant some difficult conversations both with heads of such agencies as Transport for London, and with the Deputy Mayors appointed to oversee them, but the process both integrated the teams and served as red flags when commitments were under threat.

The traffic light system was not always the favourite part of people’s work – more exciting, glamorous comms opportunities would capture daily headlines  – but the Chief of Staff and Permanent Secretary ensured that this core business had to be met first.

Adapt delivery for campaigning materials – so providing a record

The Board papers allowed the political team to extrapolate for London’s Conservative MPs achievements they could use in campaigning materials, such as those that CCHQ provided borough versions of newsletters.

Conservative MPs need regular red meat – material they can use to campaign on a record. Progress on manifesto commitments are the way to provide that, regardless of daily stories that blow hot and cold. Donors, too, want to see a scorecard that can reassuree them that core policies are being worked on.

Brand your successes.

Johnson’s team also instigated the appropriate branding for schemes – such as, at the insistence of Richard Blakeway, one of the Deputy Mayors, that all new part-funded Homes for London were attributed to the Mayor’s office as well as the private housebuilder.

There is a current debate about this practice in relation to UK Government schemes in Scotland.  It should be settled immediately: if taxpayer money is being spent in any part of the UK, the brand of Her Majesty’s Government must be displayed.

Adapt set pieces with bitesize briefings for MPs to use

Set pieces such as the Budget are another amalgamation of campaigning and governing. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne was a master of this fusion, and would pass on long shopping lists from London to civil servant teams, which would then whittle it down to list concrete commitments.

One example is the Long-Term Economic Plan for London of 2015, which adapted the work of the independent London Finance Commission – triangulating between Whitehall, local enterprise partnerships and other regional demands that the then Government was facing to ensure a fair share of investment.

Bitesize briefings based on the LTEP ensured that the huge sums pledged by the Treasury could be translated into local schemes and MP campaigning wins – such as nine new housing zones and two new tube stations. Mayors and regional MP leaders have a huge role to play in similar processes, and should feel that they are working with others as one team all along.

Create a network of insiders at all Party ranks

As Mayor, one of Johnson’s most frequent requests was: ‘what’s happening?’

These were not idle queries” rather, he created a network of allies to help respond to whatever target audiences were talking about: advisers and senior civil servants on forensic London issues; Tory MPs on constituent postbag audits (along with the gossip from dining clubs and the terrace), local council activists on doorstep concerns.

Remember who put you there – so get out and about.

Machiavelli wrote that “he who becomes a prince through the favour of the people should always keep on good terms with them”.  Jonathan Powell’s twentieth century addition was “and if his popularity goes down, his party becomes restless”.

For a mayor known only by his first name, the key to keeping on good terms was to get out and about. In a non-Covid-19 world, I’m sure that we would have seen a Prime Minister Johnson out and about in high streets across the country.

The rotating local London People’s Question Times, as with David Cameron’s Cameron Directs, created a discipline of looking at how wider policies were improving specific areas.

Instead of talking about body-worn cameras or free school places in the abstract, we would have to produce the figures for a borough and explain the exact nature of their benefits.

This helped local campaigners, along with such activities as the boost of a star-power walk, opening of one of London’s 100 new Pocket Parks or regeneration flagships such as Battersea Power station. There was never any tension at the dual nature of these events, with political visits coupled to official events -and Ministers are itching to get back to this even in a virtual world.

Respect the Grid, but don’t expect it to deliver key messages to target audiences

City Hall straddles – without fully controlling – policy areas, agencies and delivery bodies. Whitehall of course has this writ far larger. So the temptation to try and centralise announcements is natural: but in London, it rarely worked seamlessly, and with the audiences the Mayor wanted.

The grid is really a tool for journalists and Westminster, not for voters. It is important, especially if a key audience is the Tory backbenches, who need a Minister for The Today Programme, Newsnight and social media. To get to the voters, a string of random announcements on a topic such as transport should be consolidated into key messages repeated – which meansresisting the need to feed the news cycle beast.

Use the authentic voice – no-one writes to connect like Johnson

The style and reach of Johnson’s Monday Daily Telegraph column did more to focus on priorities than set speeches in warehouses or hard-hatted engineering visits.

Not that it was always disciplined: we would often reassure Numbers 10 and 11 on a Sunday that he would publicly support a new NHS or tax initiative…only for Monday morning’s paper to be a musing on ski holidays or working habits

But the Mayor’s authentic voice though cut through to core voters. And it became clear that when other Ministers wrote diary columns – in the Spectator for the Tory faithful, or in Grazia for new audiences – these would get far more discussion than press release columns.

After a difficult period that no post-war Prime Minister has had to grapple with, a refocus on what the Conservative Party promised voters in 2019, and how each constituency will feel the benefits, would help the Government to regroup. Time to return both governing and the campaign to Tory ground.