The Conservative Party, long consigned by many to the political graveyard, has been buoyed by the feeling that its appointment of Michael Howard as leader sent a wave of unease through the corridors of Number 10.
With only 18 months until the next General Election, the resurfacing of Howard, a prominent member of the last Conservative government, can only serve to aggravate Tony Blair’s current difficulties.
So far, the Labour Prime Minister, beset by troubles stemming from the Iraq war and the Hutton Inquiry, has been able to console himself with the thought that at least he does not also have to contend with a vociferous and effective opposition.
But Blair may no longer be able to rely on that comfort, as was shown last week following the Queen’s Speech, when Howard demonstrated that he was a significantly more formidable force than his predecessor, Iain Duncan Smith.
Under Howard, the Conservative Party is set to make the most of Blair’s discomfiture in the Commons as the Prime Minister faces a backbench revolt over tuition fees and Lord Hutton’s report, which is expected in the next couple of months.
But although Howard is being hailed by many as the first real challenge to the Blair Government, his reputation as a hardline right-winger, gained while serving as Home Secretary, could hamper a true renaissance for the party. Ann Widdecombe, Howard’s former deputy at the Home Office, famously remarked that there is “something of the night” about him.
Last week, a YouGov opinion poll in The Daily Telegraph put the Conservatives two points ahead of Labour, although tellingly the same poll revealed that people believe Blair would make the better Prime Minster, with 31 per cent of the vote against Howard’s 27 per cent.
Mr Howard, I exhume
Howard has been quick to improve his image – not many people knew that he was a keen football fan and had a glamorous former model as a wife until he became Tory leader – as well as that of the party. He has appointed O2 vice-president of marketing Will Harris as marketing director to give the Conservatives a much-needed makeover.
Harris is no stranger to rebranding, having reinvented BT Cellnet as O2 . In his party role, the 34-year-old marketer and former ad agency executive, who also helped to develop the Orange brand, will be responsible for opinion research, direct marketing, electronic marketing, advertising, party political broadcasting, membership, constituency marketing support and tours and events.
Observers say his brief will be to put marketing at the centre of the Tories’ strategy, and to devise a populist, television-conscious agenda for Howard. But critics scoff at the idea of a marketer trying to sell policies in the same way as baked beans. Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats has a marketing director or a marketing team.
One advertising agency executive points to Harris’s inexperience in the political arena and says: “Everyone will be very surprised if Harris’s marketing skills alone will be able to persuade voters back into the fold of the party.”
Apart from winning the next General Election, one of Harris’s key tasks will be to boost party membership – reported to be about 90,000 – and to encourage younger voters to come on board. He will also be responsible for fundraising. For the last nine months of 2002, Conservative Central Office expenditure exceeded income by &£500,000, compared with a net deficit of &£1.6m in the year to March 31, 2002. At the end of 2002, the party’s bank balance was just under &£1.8m.
Earlier this year, the Tories signed a deal with the Royal Bank of Scotland to launch a Conservative Party credit card, and with the RAC and BT Openworld to offer discounts to members (MW June 16). The package of affinity deals was designed to help recruit and retain members and to help with fundraising.
PR for UK elections?
Crucially, Harris will not have responsibility for public relations and communications – the two key disciplines which have become most associated with the turnaround of the Labour Party and its continued hold on power.
These responsibilities will fall to former Press Complaints Commission director Guy Black, who has been appointed as press secretary, with a similar role to that once undertaken by Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson for Labour.
The new-look Conservative Central Office, which has been restructured to reduce the number of departments from 11 to three, will also have a research team under Tory head of policy, Greg Clark.
But it will be up to Harris to sell the image of a reinvigorated party that appeals to the middle ground.
Harris is due to start work in the next couple of weeks, having spent the past six months on sabbatical from O2 , during which he has been writing a book on mobile phone technology and advising Stephen Norris on his London mayoral election campaign. Harris helped campaign director Mark MacGregor appoint Leagas Delaney to create an advertising campaign for Norris (MW October 2).
The Liberal Democrats’ director of press and broadcasting, Robin Banerji, says: “The conundrum for the Tory marketing director will be that even after spending millions on marketing, the product will fail to match the advertising blurb. Any attempt to sell the Tories to younger voters will fall flat on its face, since the party is full of old-timers such as Tim Yeo and Howard.”
Indeed, Harris does have his work cut out trying to brush off the cobwebs of the past from Howard, a man who came to personify everything that the public detested about the Tory government. It was during his tenure as Home Secretary from 1993 to 1997, his reputation as a hard right-winger was established. Earlier, Howard was associated with two of the most unpopular measures of the Thatcher governments – the “Poll Tax” Community Charge and the privatisation of the UK’s water supply. His staunch defence of the Poll Tax won him Thatcher’s patronage and marked him out as a hardliner, a reputation reinforced by his opposition to the minimum wage.
Harris will not reveal how he intends to reposition the Conservative Party and its new leader. But he already has Number 10 in his sights. He says: “The challenge for me is to persuade people who do not vote Conservative to see Howard as the next Prime Minister.”
One insider suggests that Harris himself has political ambitions and success would help him realise his dream of becoming an MP.
MacGregor, a former Conservative Party chief executive, says Harris will be “greatly” tested but adds: “With the Tories now united behind the new leader, Harris does have an easier task than he would have done before, with all the in-fighting in the party.”
Harris will not be the first to be given the challenge to improve the image of a Conservative Party leader. William Hague famously appointed Amanda Platell as his press chief. Her video diary, shown on Channel 4 in the aftermath of the 2001 General Election, caused uproar when it exposed the back-stabbing within the party.
Where there’s a Will
Harris’s friends and allies stress that his competence and experience as a marketer will see him through this challenge. Adrian Coleman, who worked with him at WCRS and who is one of the founding partners of O2 ‘s advertising agency, Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest, says: “He proved himself when he turned the listless old BT Cellnet into a vibrant new brand – O2. It wasn’t just about giving the brand a lick of paint.”
Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper Partners executive planning director Malcolm White, who helped to create the Labour Party’s 1997 election campaign when he was at BMP DDB, also approves of the appointment: “The Tories will not be bogged down by accusations of spin, because they will have professional marketing knowledge to promote their political strategy.”
One of the candidates initially shortlisted for Harris’s new job, former Arthur Andersen marketing director Eddie Bowman, says: “The Labour Party got it right five years ago, although now its spin machine has become synonymous with lies and deceit. That is a lesson which the Tories need to learn. The party wanted to appoint someone with branding and consumer experience and without any Westminster baggage.”
It is understood that Sir Stanley Kalms, founder of the Dixons retail empire and former Conservative Party treasurer, championed the appointment of Harris.
But one Tory insider says that Harris’s role will be superficial – the main work has already been achieved with the creation of a buzz in political circles and in the media. “Guy Black will have the ultimate say in how the party is projected. Harris will just run focus groups or appoint advertising agencies to do the work,” he adds.
One of the main tasks ahead is to get the popular press on-side. Rupert Murdoch’s News International has already hinted at the possibility of a return to a Tory endorsement, not only from The Times but more crucially from The Sun. Black is understood to be a close personal friend of Sun editor Rebekah Wade.
A Conservative Party spokesman denies that the restructure of Conservative Central Office puts marketing in a subservient position to press. But whichever discipline takes precedence, the party faces a long, hard struggle to regain the popularity which allowed it to win four consecutive General Elections.
Howard’s opponents will be more than keen to rake up the past and depict him as a Dracula figure, leading a failing party. It will be up to Harris and Black to work together to project an image of a Commons veteran who can lead a credible parliamentary party. But, as the old saw has it: oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them.