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Westminster Watch: power plays

FOR A LOBBYIST, THE HOURS AFTER A GENERAL ELECTION are particularly interesting because you are inevitably trying to understand where the balance of power lies, where the opportunities are for clients and what the new rules of the game are.

I will admit that the prospect of a Conservative landslide didn’t fill me with delight, not for any political reason, but because the number of levers you can pull are reduced. If a prime minister has a 100-seat majority then it is very hard to bounce him or her into anything.

Bearing in mind the tight team that Theresa May used to have in place, this meant that the number of individuals that could influence a decision was pretty limited. You had to convince No.10 or go home.

Hung parliaments are the opposite of this; there are levers everywhere. I always say that the Coalition period was the best to lobby in because of the competing agendas. There were different sets of ministers in departments, the ‘Quad’ (Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Danny Alexander), a backbench system to maintain discipline, Lib Dem policy committees, No.10’s backbench policy board, select committees… it was great!

We now have another hung parliament and while there will be no DUP ministers, there are many agendas at play. Some of those that we need to focus on are:

• DUP – The DUP’s king-maker role is important but they will also not want to see ‘IRA supporting’ Jeremy Corbyn in power, so their room for manoeuvre is limited. But we know that they want more spending in Northern Ireland, greater tax parity with the Republic and a halt to the more contentious welfare reforms. Our sector should note that the DUP has been one of the key voices pushing for APD to be ditched.

• CONSERVATIVE LEFT – The political ground has shifted so that the Conservative Left (the ‘soft Brexiteers’), centred around the Conservative Mainstream group, has a great deal of political power. Not only have key personnel found their way into critical positions (see May’s new Chief of Staff and the First Secretary of State), but they have the numbers to derail policies that are felt to be too in thrall to the Tory party’s right. It’s those on the left of the party, who were already deeply unhappy with the UK’s ‘hard Brexit’ trajectory, that have the greatest motivation to throw their weight around. While they can’t go too far (they don’t want another general election or a leadership contest that establishes a right-wing leader with a new mandate), a weakened Theresa May suits their agenda.

• SCOTTISH TORY MPS – Ruth Davidson was quick to assert her position after the initial DUP deal was mooted and she is very aware that it is her cohort of Scottish MPs that prevented a devastating victory from being a calamitous defeat on June 8. That group of MPs with their own Scottish political sensibilities are likely to push for a softer Brexit trajectory and there were reports that they are asking for their own whipping operation to be put in place. That’s a clear sign that they expect to diverge from colleagues in England and Wales in the coming months. The relationship between this group and the Conservative Left will be absolutely critical and there are already suggestions that coordination is underway.

• TORY RIGHT – Equally, the Conservative Right is focused on Brexit and will know that bringing down the Government, too soon at least, may jeopardise that. It is no surprise that it was scions of the Right who rallied to May after the election, calling on their left-wing colleagues to settle down. An important point will be how much a particular faction feels that a weakened Theresa May has been captured by their opponents.

If either wing feels their agenda is being sidelined, they will have less compunction about launching a challenge. How much will this impact on our agenda? Honestly… we don’t know yet. Things are moving fast and there are many unknowns. Experience tells us the situation will settle down, and when it does there are lots of levers to pull.

Gareth Morgan is a political lobbyist and director with Cavendish Communications. He is an advisor to the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC).

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