If you haven’t spent the last 6 months feeling like you’re directly in the middle of what can only be compared to a destructive tornado made up of endless scoops and bombshells, you clearly haven’t spent enough time in Westminster.
The Government’s natural reaction to the Sue Gray report was to try and park it and move on, in the hope they could finally put the chaos to bed. History has taught us that was a slightly naïve approach and if the last few months are anything to go by, we should constantly expect the unexpected. Seatbelts on please, as this is certainly not going to be an easy ride.
Heads now turn to the next General Election, as a party on the backfoot begins to navigate through one of the most difficult roles of all in trying to shape and influence both the media and the public to see them in a more favourable light while keeping the show on the road in the meantime. Working at No10 during the recent press office kafuffle was incredibly eye opening and helped me to understand one thing in far greater detail – it’s that if you want to know what the Prime Minister is thinking and feeling, to look no further than the grid.
For those of you who don’t know what the grid is or have just had better things to do than monitor its evolution over the years, I’ll summarise. The Government Grid is the most influential and important government function and was introduced by New Labour in 1997 to provide a form of strategy to the placement and sequence of all external communications. The grid is used across every department to inform No10 of plans, on the basis that if an announcement isn’t gridded, it isn’t happening. It protects the Prime Minister, burying bad news in a sea of good policy, avoiding awkward media clashes, and working to maintain one clear coherent narrative.
Today’s grid has changed significantly since I left from behind the big black door living and breathing the Build Back Better priority. Last year, that slogan was slapped onto every press release, and if the announcement didn’t clearly help the country to Build Back Better, Greener, Safer, Stronger or Fairer, it fell into an endless pit of bad policies never making its place onto the grid. We were in protection mode. The country was struggling, and the pandemic changed life as we knew it at incredible speed – but then, as the vaccine rollout succeeded in casting a bright light at the end of the tunnel, we needed to step things up in showing everyone that we were ready to do what it takes to get us there – and fast.
Now, the pandemic is long behind us (or at least, that’s the new narrative). Build Back Better has been dropped completely, and the grid has, of course, changed to reflect that. This is the Prime Minister making clear that we won’t be looking back anymore and reaffirms the idea that No10 believe their time building the country back up from the pandemic has come to an end.
As reported by The Sun’s Harry Cole, the grid has now been colour coded to reflect the new, streamlined priorities – Economy, Leadership, Crime, Health and Ukraine. This can only reflect one thing – the Prime Minister’s team are now in permanent survival mode, with an eye on the next election.
This is No10 telling departments: if what you’re doing doesn’t fit into one of these categories and you’re not actively trying to help us win the next election, you won’t be forming part of our news agenda: you’ll end up in that pit. This doesn’t mean other things can’t or won’t happen. Of course they will. They’ll just happen quietly with absolutely no fanfare, which has an unhealthy habit of working until a journalist occasionally cottons on.
Taking a closer look, the focus seems to be largely on supporting the UK economy and households, easing the cost-of-living crisis for families, while also using some of the Government’s flagship policies such as Levelling Up to position the UK as an exemplar world leader now broken free from the shackles of the EU. They will continue to shout about the need to cut crime and keep our country safe, while intermittently pointing back to what they are doing to grow and strengthen the economy and protect the NHS.
Interestingly, the ‘green agenda’ which was the Government’s top priority this time last year ahead of COP26, has been dropped entirely from the priority list. Announcements focused on ensuring we reach our Net Zero commitments will continue – but No10 don’t think the green policy areas will convince voters to tick the box of the blues next year and won’t waste time flogging that dead horse between now and then.
There is also a notable lack of education as a priority area, but No10 will struggle to avoid criticism on this. After all, parents will often make sacrifices but do not expect their children to. All eyes will be on the Schools Bill and Higher Education Bill. Of course you should still expect big-hitting education announcements and Zahawi on your screens before breakfast, but the overall lack of prioritisation in this area helps us understand No10’s direction of travel.
An eighty-seat majority is a mountain to climb but what is clear is that the outcome of the next General Election is wide open. We could even have one or more new party leaders between now and then, or we could end up with a snap election much earlier which will take us all by surprise. This uncertainty, partnered with a cost of living crisis leaves the public feeling unsettled and partygate hasn’t helped. The new No10 grid shows the government is already in fight mode – but will the need to fight for political survival right now trump longer term planning ahead of a general election? The answer lies in the grid.