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The PRCA has announced the shortlist for the fifth Douglas Smith Prize for best young public affairs practitioner in the UK. PubAffairs will be publishing the essays of all six shortlisted candidates in the run up to the 2017 Public Affairs Awards on Thursday 14th December at which the winner of the Prize will be announced.

The first round of the Prize asked candidates to submit an essay entitled “What impact does a minority Conservative Government have on the public affairs industry?”. The candidates have been interviewed on their essay and their wider work on the 28th November. Below is the entry submitted by Philippa Alway, Senior Account Executive at Lodestone Communications.

You can also view the entries from Sam Evans, Cavendish Communications; Rhiannon Sanders, The Whitehouse Consultancy; Natasha Silkin, PB Consulting; Liz Moore, PLMR; and Tanyka Davson, Weber Shandwick.


What impact does a minority Conservative Government have on the public affairs industry?

Strong and stable - that is the Conservative Government the British public were promised. That is the Conservative Government the public affairs industry was preparing for. Yet, the early election delivered us with a weak and wounded Conservative Government, functioning in a minority at a time when governing our fractured country has never been more vital. The public affairs industry must now reflect upon what a minority Conservative Government means for its role in policy-making, how best to work with Parliament, and how to prepare for the next one.

Understanding precarious politics

Minority governments are precarious by nature. Although the Conservatives are the largest party in the Commons, they are in a minority when all the MPs are sitting and voting in the chamber. This means that the party in power are extremely vulnerable to both a vote of no confidence and also rejection of legislation by colluding opposition parties.

The ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is more complex than if it were a coalition. The Government is left only with the power to legislate and a limited ability to govern. History suggests that though minority governments exist in fear of defeat, they can sustain long lives of legislating. However, our current administration is struggling to deliver the bread and butter of governing and is paralysed by Brexit negotiations.

Navigating the legislative procedure

The public affairs industry is relied upon to navigate this current predicament of an unstable and complex legislative process and to put forward the voices of stakeholders to make policy better. To do this, there is an acute need for a thorough understanding of the nitty-gritty details of the parliamentary procedures of policy-making in Westminster. Knowing the workings of the UK’s political processes inside out when it comes to the whipping system and the timetabling of legislation, as well as how to effectively monitor and be responsive to parliamentary activity, is essential.

Since there is an unsteady balance of power, rebellion is not tolerated. Whips are both fearful and powerful, and the parliamentary arithmetic means that the Government is at risk of defeat and ministers daren’t chance votes. Rebellions, defections and resignations could define the outcomes of legislation. At a time like this when every vote matters, the quality of the proposals almost matters less than the whip’s calculus of whether it might be at risk of a defeat. We must have an ear to what is being whispered in Westminster so we can best contribute to policy-making through targeted campaigns, and so that we can to prepare for the outcomes of legislation.

Moreover, foresight is needed in terms of the timetabling of parliamentary business. So too must the industry be aware of how fast legislation is being pushed through and why. This will allow us to find an opportune time in the legislative process to amplify the voices of the stakeholders we represent. The size of the Brexit task, with complex and controversial legislation demanding extra time and careful scheduling to move through Parliament means that there can be surprises when it comes to timetabling. Monitoring this and being responsive is essential.

Negotiating consensus-building

With the Government in a minority and the mammoth task of Brexit consuming Westminster, policy-making is harder than ever and meaningful dialogue is required. To achieve the kind of reforms that it wants, the Government’s chances might be improved if it were able to reach out to opposition MPs. Parties on all sides have to play the persuasion game to make things happen, and this opens up more space in the conversation for stakeholders to contribute.

Our industry can facilitate these cross-party discussions, which could be one of the best ways for the public affairs industry to work with Parliament. Public affairs professionals needs to make an effort - now more than ever - to engage with all parties across both Houses. This will help to secure support on cross-party policy positions that will impact legislation. Moreover, whilst passing legislation is harder, stopping it becomes easier. Forums like All Party Parliamentary Groups prove fertile ground for such consensus-building. However, more often than not, politicians express little inclination to be cooperative past the point of discussion. When they are sat in the chamber, adversarial politics returns. Yet, it is a good investment of time for public affairs professionals for other reasons too.

Building relationships with Parliamentarians from all parties, particularly the official opposition will also prepare us for policy-making in the next parliament. It is looking more and more likely that a Labour is a governing party in waiting. Widening our networks and taking the opposition seriously will stand the industry in good stead for whatever comes next.

The need for new ideas

And so too, we must not forget that backbench MPs have a significant amount of power, especially in a minority government where instability is rife. These politicians should welcome new ideas and solutions from stakeholders. The intensity of legislative life means that MPs are often hugely stretched in their efforts to balance the interests of their constituents, their party commitments, and their own personal interests. Giving them something to advocate for offers them a chance to make their mark and boost their standing in their party, as well as their exposure to the commentariat. When devising strategies on who to lobby and engage with, they must not be overlooked.

With a minority Conservative Government in power, now is an opportune time for the public affairs industry to fulfil its function - putting forward the views of stakeholders to policymakers in the hope that it helps the development of better legislation. Both Parliament and the electorate are crying out for new ideas that will build cross-party consensus and progress the currently stagnant policy-making. This is what our industry can provide. But this must be done with the impact of an unstable minority government - and the complex legislative process it engenders - in mind.