Big Ben

Back to basics? Campaigning in a Tory majority Parliament

By Richard Darlington 14 February 2020 5 minute read

In this guest blog, Richard Darlington shares how the new political landscape creates fresh challenges for campaigning charities. This blog is an update to the workshop Richard gave at NPC Ignites. Be the first to know about this year’s conference by signing up to our newsletter.


Amid all the headlines about the historic nature of the 2019 election result, campaigners in charities and think tanks would be forgiven for missing just how radical it might turn out to be for the story of their careers. You’d need to be in your fifties to have any professional experience of operating in an environment where a Conservative government commands such a stable and substantive majority in Parliament.

I wrote for NPC on the lessons and opportunities of campaigning in a hung Parliament, for the NPC Ignites conference last year. Maybe you can dust that blog off in four or five years because the next half decade is going to be very different.

The Coalition years were often about finding wedge issues, when voters were tight. The hung Parliament, in which Teressa May was held hostage by the European Research Group, was about gathering enough cross-party support to build Parliamentary roadblocks. But the first half of the twenty twenties is going to be all about the dynamics within the executive. Whitehall is once again going to dominate Westminster.

Those who worked in Whitehall during the late nineties and noughties will remember the Tony Blair -Gordon Brown dynamic as an all-encompassing bipolar hinge. But we are only at the beginning of understanding how the Tory tribes are going to skirmish during this Parliament. Beyond Brexit, the free-marketeers saw an opportunity to keep on Taking Back Control of economic policy. But the working class Blue Collar Conservatives now feel equally vindicated and can plausibly argue that to keep control of the ‘Red Wall’ of former Labour heartlands is going to require more than just spending promises. One Nation Tories seeking the centre ground will point to just how many seats there are in which the Lib Dems are now in second place, and how many seats in the south are accelerating a demographic journey to multicultural, social liberalism.

Take, as an example, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary and the stand-in at PMQs. He was one of the free-market authors of Britain Unchained, but is number two in a government established via an electoral coalition that includes small towns left behind by globalisation and suffocated by a decade of austerity. In his own backyard, he’s gone from a comfy five figure majority in leafy Surrey to having to defend a marginal seat against the Lib Dems next time around. Having finished fifth in the Tory leadership race, but knowing that probably only the former Chancellor Sajid Javid will run again, this ambitious 40-something is going to be pulled in at least three directions.

This is the ‘big picture’ backdrop for the big beasts in Cabinet, who are going to be taking all the big decisions that the Prime Minster delegates. And, from what we know about the executive style of the former Mayor of London, Boris is prepared to delegate a lot. When he’s not delegating to Cabinet Ministers, he will be delegating to No10 staff. So, reading the long reads in the Sunday papers and signing up to SW1 focused daily email briefings in going to be vital in understanding who at No10 is briefing against who. The real skill will to be able to work out why.

If your organisation is dominated by well-meaning progressives who are broadly on the left (and let’s face it, that’s most charities), the best ten minutes you can spend each day is listening to the Spectator’s Coffee House Shots podcast. That will give you a rapid summary of how “Tory figures” (which is Katy Balls’ catchphrase) see the top issues if the day. When James Forsyth tells you what Cabinet Ministers are thinking, that’s basically because they’ve told him.

And don’t think that those Cabinet Ministers can’t be influenced by your charity campaign. They can. You just have to understand the trajectory of their careers and the of rhythm of their week.

Most politicians are genuinely motivated by a desire to serve their community and country. But I think you can divide the career position of just about every government minister (or politician, for that matter) into three types:

  • Those looking up – ambitious for promotion and calculating every move as pre-positioning for their next step on the career ladder.
  • Those looking down – worried about the latest ‘next big thing’ that’s going to come along and eat their lunch, they are often paranoid about being sacked or demoted.
  • Those looking out – they know they have already peaked in their political career and are now looking for a legacy, something they can be remembered for when their career eventually ends, as all do, in failure.

No one thinks that politicians work nine to five but very few really understand how their weekly rhythm. On Monday morning they often travel to London from their constituency. Monday to Thursday they are held hostage by their diaries of back-to-back meetings and late-night votes, usually in SW1 but always in London. On Thursday night they travel back to their constituency and on Friday and Saturday morning they take the pulse of public opinion. Sunday is a day for reintroducing themselves to their families.

Friday and Saturday, in the constituency, is when politicians are at their most accessible to campaigns and are at their most receptive to campaigners. But if those campaigns do not resonate with their constituents and if those campaigners do not at least appear to be voters who might change their minds, they are simply dismissed.

This is how the culture war is playing out in the UK. Six million people signed a petition to revoke Article 50. A million people took to the streets to call for a People’s Vote. And Boris Johnson dismissed thousands of people joining the Extinction Rebellion as “crusties who haven’t had a shower.” If people look like ‘other people’s people’, from a politician’s perspective, they are dismissed, irrespective of how many of them there are.

In the coming years, campaigns need local resonance and they need to resonate in Conservative held constituencies: either in the safe (mainly) southern seats of Cabinet ministers or in the (mainly) northern seats of the new 2019 intake.


Richard Darlington is Campaign Director for 25 leading UK NGOs.