Wednesday, 26 December 2018

The 2016 Conservative Leadership Campaign pt 2

Agents are from Mars. Members of Parliament are from Venus. 

I have long held the view that, with one or two honourable exceptions, Campaign Directors make poor Members of Parliament, and Members of Parliament make poor Campaign Directors. And the official launch of Andrea Leadsom's leadership campaign did little to persuade me to change my mind. At this stage her campaign was being run by MPs for MPs, and I think I can safely report that most of us from outside the Parliamentary circus were grateful to avoid guilt by association. 

I arrived at the Cinnamon Club early on Monday 4 July to secure a good vantage point to watch Andrea's official launch, and was shown into a small private room on the ground floor. My first thoughts, "bloody hell, this room is far too small and far too hot."

Over the next 45 minutes probably 150 people, including journalists, financial backers, supporters, MPs, photographers, camera operators and sound recordists crammed into a room which would comfortably seat 60. 

Who booked such a small room? Perhaps the same person who thought they could launch a serious leadership campaign with a £50 pop-up banner and a lectern front which didn't show the candidate's name.  And why weren't the arriving journalists given embargoed copies of her speech so they had time to absorb and report her words? And why was the event management so poor that a route from the door to the lectern was not kept clear, resulting in the poor candidate have to push and elbow her way to the front in what appeared an undignified rugby scrum. In fact, given Andrea's pitch was that of the candidate who understood the anger that drove Brexit, and that she would not be leader for the 'rich and privileged’, who thought that the oak panelled private dining room of one of Westminster's most exclusive and expensive restaurants was an appropriate venue? Not surprisingly the press coverage raised all the above points, even from writers who should have been sympathetic to our endeavours. It need not have been like that.  Re-watching video footage of that day I am actually impressed how Andrea maintained her dignity and composure amid the chaos around her. 

After the launch it was the first formal meeting of her extended campaign team. We were originally going to meet in the same room, but no-one had checked its availability and it had been booked out for a private lunch, so we wandered around like nomads, being chased from one room to another, before the manager finally took pity and found us a table large enough for eight in the main restaurant. Which would have been fine... had there not been 14 of us. So there we sat, two to a chair or on each others knees, squatting on our haunches and looming over each others shoulders, amid the faint odour of kedgeree and the clatter of crockery, and speaking sotto voce so as not to be overheard by James Lansdale at the adjoining table. This is how and where we planned our very own Peasants' Revolt. 

Despite the uncomfortable and slightly absurd surroundings the team gathered around that table were first rate.

  • From the parliamentary party we had Steve BakerChris Heaton-Harris and Michael Tomlinson
  • Helen Mayer was there, fresh from Vote Leave. Helen was a former senior adviser at the LibDems but left having realised they were not very liberal nor very democratic. Helen was in charge of "development" and events (but not this one!) and has since become a good friend and confidante.
  • The writer, author and historian Dr Lee Rotherham was there and in charge of policy and research. The formidable Dr Ruth Lee and Shane Frith were also working on policy.
  • Tom Borwick, also from Vote Leave, was in charge of digital comms.
  • William Norton was the legal agent and in charge of compliance.
  • JP Floru was in charge of administration and office management.
  • And finally Bill Clare was her press officer and director of comms. 
With the exception of Bill Clare, I knew, liked and trusted everyone around that table.But I took an instant personal disliking of Bill Clare, who I found arrogant, semi-detached and not at all collegiate. A view I later found was shared by many of my colleagues. 

My mind wandered to how Team Gove and Team May would be planning their campaigns. I had no doubt they would have proper air-conditioned offices and enough chairs for everyone to sit on. But I was also confident we had the upper hand. We were a disparate group of driven individuals, brought together by unexpected circumstances and a shared endeavour. We were the insurgents who spoke for the heart of the Conservative membership; I believed that we could win.

Everyone around that table was involved because they believed in what we were doing, not out of loyalty to their employer nor through a sense of entitlement. And if we were going to win, our campaign had to be fought in the constituencies, not from plush offices in SW1 nor via grand stage-managed speeches surrounded by starry-eyed adoring supporters.    
Later that day I returned to Kent to plan in minute detail how we would win. I adapted my General Election war book, which has stood me well for many years; almost everything was adaptable for the campaign ahead.  

My first task was to recruit a small army of voluntary researchers, which I drew from personal contacts, friends and Vote Leave activists. They were split into four groups:

Group one (thirty people) were tasked with trawling through every parish, borough, district, unitary, county council and Conservative Association website to populate a database of key Conservative activists. Each volunteer was given two or three counties and 48 hours to report back. 

Group two (about ten people) were asked to download every set of Conservative Association accounts from the Electoral Commission website, and produce a database of where our members lived (ie, numbers in each Association) and where we had active branches. This data would be used to plot Andrea's campaign in the constituencies, ensuring her time spent matched where our members actually lived. 

Group three (again, ten people) were cross-referencing names produced by group one against various social media platforms and scrolling back to see if they were Leave or Remain.  My view was the overwhelming majority of Leave supporters would want a Leave supporting party leader.

Group four (just me and two others) were making personal contact by phone or email with those identified by Group three as “sympathetic", to ask if they would take on a county or constituency organising role for Leadsom for Leader.  Amazingly, apart from those unable to help due to health or age, almost everyone asked was willing to help and they, in turn, introduced me to other local activists who would fill in the gaps or offer additional support. 

Sadly I cannot name this amazing team; some did so on the basis of anonymity, others now hold senior elected positions within the National Convention, some worked for MPs who were supporting Mrs May, and some were not even party members but desperately wanted a Leave Prime Minister to implement what our country had voted for. They know who they are and what they helped to achieve in the first 72 hours. Thanks to this group's efforts I was able to report back to a joint meeting of Leadsom's Campaign Team on Wednesday 6 July that we had built up a database of almost 15,000 members and we had over 400 constituency organisers in place across the UK, with hundreds more potential organisers to contact. My colleagues were making equal progress within their own areas of responsibility. 

The next stage of my plan was to devise a series of tours getting Andrea out of Westminster and into the constituencies four days each week. Andrea's great strength was face to face; she is charming, thoughtful and genuinely interested in people. I was convinced the best way for her to win their trust and support was to ensure as many as possible had a chance to meet her in person. I now had the infrastructure in place to make that happen. 

I was planning for her to visit each region between two and five times during the three month campaign, with on average 4 events a day; these could be anything from a local coffee morning, a lunch, afternoon tea or an evening "town hall" style Q&A meeting in major towns. My aim was for her to meet 2,000/3,000 members a week (or 25,000/30,000 over the three month campaign). 

I believed Mrs May's campaign would be top down and her programme of activity outside London to be severely restricted by the security demands of being Home Secretary. I wanted Leadsom for Leader to be fleet of foot, spontaneous and driven by our members and supporters. Team May had been planning and plotting this bid for 10 years; I remembered being asked several years earlier by a member of her team when we invited her to address the Kent Patrons' Club "exactly how many Association Chairmen will be present?"  We had been planning and plotting for just 72 hours. I knew we couldn't take them on and win in a traditional media dominated broadcast campaign. But we could win by running the insurgent campaign and riding the Brexit wave from the constituencies all the way to Westminster.   

Thursday 7 July 2016: We gathered in Millbank Tower, Westminster for the hastily arranged Leadsom for Leader Rally. Many of us were nervous about this event, but the decision had been taken and by the time we were told, it was too late. In the end, the rally itself passed off well. The setting was fine, the backdrop had been improved and Andrea's speech was actually very good - for the first time showing depth and policy beyond Brexit. I have published a transcript of that speech HERE for those who are interested.

Then came the bombshell.

"Have you heard what they are planning?" asked Helen Mayer. 

I hadn't. 

"They are planning a Leadsom for Leader March down Millbank to Parliament Square, led by Tim Loughton and Julian Brazier. And it gets worse. Tiim Loughton will be chanting "what do we want" and the crowd is expected to reply "Leadsom for Leader" followed by "when do we want it" to which we must reply "NOW.".

I burst out laughing. I seriously thought she was joking. Then Tom Borwick joined us and confirmed it was true. "We have to try to stop it."

The three of us went to speak to Steve Baker who I think was sympathetic to our point of view, but said it was too late. Apparently the press had been tipped off and if we cancelled it would make us look weak. I remember saying very loudly, "perhaps it's better to look weak than to look fucking ridiculous."

And so we gathered outside; Helen Mayer in her Harris Tweed jacket and me in my trademark red jeans and open neck shirt, surrounded by 200 pink faced Tory boys in their best chalk stripe suits. I can do no better than to quote the Evening Standard, "they resembled a march of City Bankers demanding back their bonuses”. 

(c) London Evening Standard
To this day I do not know who thought that march was a good idea, but whoever it was turned us into a laughing stock and seriously undermined our credibility as a serious campaign and Andrea as a serious contender. And as for those of us who fight elections for a living rather than for a game, we were determined to have no part in it. We removed our Leadsom badges and t-shirts and dropped back 50 metres, a safe distance between us and the chanting mob, where we were joined by others who had more sense. 

One freelance photographer was having a field day. Having photographed the last gaggle of banner-waving Tory boys he turned his attention to us. "Is this the end of it?" he asked (meaning the end of the march). "It might well be", I replied.  

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