It was noticeable at the latest Covid press briefing that Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, began to use language that had been lost in the eye of the storm recently. During what has been a challenging week for the Prime Minister and a good start from Keir Starmer, it is clear that discussions have taken place amongst top aides in Downing Street about getting the government narrative back on track.
Shapps was trying to move the debate on, albeit slightly, to get back to highlighting the other ambitions that the government has: the manifesto, a levelling up agenda and thinking about the northern seats won at the general election just six months ago. Brexit talks are continuing – with many a twist and turn to come – not least in the latest round of negotiations today. But all ministers and advisers will want to get the messaging back on track despite the difficult circumstances.
Ministers are still heading into government departments, rattling around cavernous offices with just an adviser or two and a private secretary. Ministerial diaries are being filled with round tables with industry bodies and representatives all highlighting the particular challenges that a sector or operator is experiencing.
We have seen several announcements published in the past few days, but they are largely simple funding increases. The difficulty any government has is ensuring that the Whitehall machine can work together effectively with industry to identify policies that encourage and drive consumer demand, rather than supply. This will be the litmus test on how smooth an exit we can make from this crisis.
Ministers and officials will want to engage industry on well-thought, plotted and deliverable proposals that can unlock the gears of the British economy at pace. The appetite and ability for government to work with industry as we seek an exit from this crisis are growing, but now need the policies to match.
We do not need to look that far back in history to see examples of approaches that received government support and a lung-busting blow of the ministerial bugle. The 2008 financial crisis, only yesterday in Whitehall timelines, saw a successful coming together of government and a particular industry. The Car Scrappage Scheme was introduced after intensive and protracted discussions between the department for transport, SMMT and vehicle manufacturers. The policy was agreed as a result of industry bringing the proposal to ministers as a positive joint action that could be taken to support jobs and the wider economy. Ministers, much like today, surrounded by a sea of problems, saw the opportunity and it was subsequently announced by Alistair Darling, the then chancellor.
We are seeing similar schemes being launched in other countries with the same political challenges. In Austria, households in Vienna will be opening envelopes today to a free 50 € voucher to use in local restaurants. It kills two birds with one stone. Firstly, it protects the entrepreneurs and restaurant operators who can redeem the voucher and secondly – it gives voters, with elections in October, a chance to judge what actions have been taken from their local elected representative.
Having the ability to take your friends and family out for a ‘free’ meal thanks to their local representative will be on every political leaflet from here on in. We will see these types of schemes, perhaps not as blatant, in the United Kingdom before long. This is smart, if not sophisticated, politics.
All governments will need to be able to demonstrate they can work with industry, with many in a state of distress. The flagship policies we will begin to see could be eye-wateringly expensive in normal times but given the scale of the costs built up already, the political judgement will be “in for a penny, in for a pound.”
Bringing forward partnership opportunities that are deliverable for the government like those above is the most important factor. Ideas can become policy very quickly and go on to lead the news bulletins. Ninety per cent of proposals coming in from industry or dreamt up in Whitehall will not be practical or viable – as a result, some sectors could be left behind.
The focus for companies engaging with government departments is sector blind. Government and industries both operate with limited parameters, but the boundaries in Whitehall will be stretched for the right policy announcement. Identifying opportunities that fit with the political narrative and Whitehall objectives is the key to not being part of the problem, but part of the solution. That is what will capture attention in the current climate.