With Theresa May’s reshuffle now complete, a consensus is forming that it’s been a rather underwhelming rearranging of the deck chairs. All the big beasts remain in place and some junior ministers appear to have been moved from their briefs just for the sake of moving them. Matters weren’t helped by a shambolic roll out which saw Chris Grayling falsely announced on Twitter as the new party chairman – and reports of disarray with ministers refusing to budge thanks to hacks tweeting the time each had spent in Downing Street.
It’s clear that no-one in No 10 has mastered the art of completing a reshuffle in the digital age. As I write in today’s i paper, although David Cameron once taunted Gordon Brown that he was ‘an analogue politician in a digital age’ who was ‘completely stuck in the past’, it’s now the Tories who don’t get the digital age. Whether it’s cringe-worthy Conservative Instagram posts, fake news dominating social media or self-inflicted Twitter gaffes, the Tories know they are on the back foot online. The silver lining that they do at least accept that they have a problem. and they are ready to do something about it.
One of the reasons Lewis was – eventually – picked over Grayling for chairman is that the latter wasn’t deemed to be sufficiently digitally-savvy for the task at hand. That task is great – and for this reason Lewis has not just been given a deputy in the form of rising star James Cleverly but a whole batch of ‘vice-chairmen’, made up of the party’s best media performers. Their mission is to re-oil the rusty party machine and inject a bit of life.
The initial signs are promising. As Cleverly put it before his appointment; ‘We need to make campaigning fun, cheap and easy. We also need to give people the ammunition to fight these fights on social media.’ However, this is easier said that done. CCHQ figures think that since the election they are getting close to having the machinery they need – with the size of the digital team almost doubling and an increased pace in responding to events.
But the thing pretty much everyone can agree on is that a change in tone is required. If the Conservatives are to cut through online, it isn’t enough to sound like a quote from a party press release. Labour and Momentum are making content that people want to share – that tap into people’s’ values. The Tories are not.
The difficulty the Tories’ face is that pushing the boundaries online is hard when you are the party of government. As one former staffer puts it: ‘Labour can say whatever they like because they are in Opposition and they don’t need to worry about the ministerial code.’ This suggests that perhaps the answer could be found in third party endorsements. But then that raises a question as to why CCHQ figures blocked plans last month to utilise the popularity of I’m a Celebrity… jungle Queen and young Tory Georgia Toffolo. Although Toff volunteered her services and legion of fans, it was ruled that she was “too posh to win over Labour supporters” Posh or not, there’s no way a group like Momentum wouldn’t work out a way to bring in someone with over a million followers on Instagram. In a sign that this realisation is beginning to dawn on Tories, it’s notable that Ben Bradley – the newly appointed vice-chairman for youth – today met up with Toff in Parliament, see Steerpike for the details.
This is the big challenge for the Tories: working out how to adapt to the new rules of engagement. The party is understandably cautious about the wild web but a control-freak approach will bring little reward. For safer terrain, inspiration could be found in Michael Gove – the government’s resident eco-warrior – and his work at Defra. Thanks to a range of good new policy announcements you can go online and find endorsements for government policy from the kind of organisations that people trust far more than political parties. This is the crunch point. All the good machinery in the world can’t fix the Conservatives’ problem is there is no central message. If they are to compete with Labour online, they must remember that it’s the message, not just the medium that matters.