Lee Cain is a founding partner at strategic advisory firm Charlebye and a former No. 10 director of communications.
“With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed,” Abraham Lincoln once observed.
Curiously, it is not a view shared by Liz Truss.
The new U.K. prime minister surprised aides on her arrival at No. 10 Downing Street with her refusal to engage with what she branded “the optics” of government — believing this was the undoing of her predecessor.
Despite the Tories’ plummeting poll ratings in the wake of the ‘kami-Kwasi’ budget, she stubbornly attempted to maintain her ground — proudly boasting that she “doesn’t mind being unpopular.”
The PM might not mind being unpopular, but it is clearly not a view shared by her party.
Tory MPs are revolting. The party has fallen a staggering 33 points behind Labour in the polls, forcing the PM and her chancellor into an embarrassing U-turn on their 45p tax rate cut.
Less than a month into her premiership, it is unlikely Truss’ reputation will recover.
It didn’t need to be this way. Many of the unforced errors could have been avoided if the PM had understood how to talk to the audience that matters most — the electorate.
Before being propelled into Downing Street, Truss was an unknown quantity to the vast majority of the public, providing her with a golden opportunity to define herself.
If she had cared about “optics” — using public opinion research to correctly frame issues and remove potentially toxic policies — she would undoubtedly be in a much stronger position today.
This is why the beginning of a prime minister’s tenure is so crucial. It is a time of almost unrivalled ‘cut-through,’ when the public first pay attention and begin to form a judgement. And once that judgement is set, it is incredibly difficult to shift.
In 2019 Boris Johnson was also thrust into Downing Street upon the votes of the Tory membership and, in Brexit, faced a significant challenge that had ended the premiership of his predecessor.
His team — of which I served as director of communications — knew his first 100 days would define how people viewed PM Johnson. We knew we had one opportunity to recast him as a man who both understood public concerns and was determined to deliver.
Our strategy to ‘cut through’ was simple, but ruthlessly effective. We ignored the views of the Westminster bubble and spoke to the country. We conducted research, and listened to people’s concerns.
People told us they wanted Brexit done, and for the government to focus on their priorities — crime, education and the NHS. And that is what we did.
Amid parliamentary chaos, Boris embodied this strategy, constantly repeating the “get Brexit done” mantra during visits to schools, police stations and hospitals — visuals that signalled to the public that he shared their priorities.
Truss has privately suggested her predecessor failed because he was too obsessed with polling and focus groups. She is mistaken. Boris went wrong when his focus later shifted from the public to the pundits, his series of COVID U-turns being the best example.
In the early days of his administration, one of the most important elements of our success was our collective ability to ignore the relentless false auguries of the pundit class and remain focused on our goal.
This may sound straightforward, but to many politicians the siren call of the commentariat is hard to resist. They’ve spent a career taking every pundit proclamation seriously, so it is a difficult pattern to shift.
We used public opinion research as an important counterweight to the media’s view. This deep understanding of our real audience allowed us to remain focused on our priorities, instead of regularly changing tactics to react to pundits.
We were rewarded with a 10-point increase in vote share after 100 days in office — not to mention an 80-seat majority a few months later.
For the new PM, I fear the damage to her reputation is already so severe it is unlikely she will ever recover sufficiently to become an election winner for the Conservatives.
Beginning her tenure with a flurry of unpopular policies without considering how they would land as a package has allowed her opponents to frame her government as being in favor of the uber-wealthy, at the expense of those on lower incomes. This will be exacerbated if the government drops the existing pledge to raise benefits in line with inflation.
If the PM has any chance of recovering some of the lost ground, she has to develop policy solutions that allow her to communicate that she is on the public’s side.
Abraham Lincoln knew the greatest challenge for all politicians is building and maintaining public support. It is a lesson Liz Truss needs to learn — and quickly.