Conservative Party PR: A Story of Tory Ups and Downs

The very nature of politics makes for a 24/7 PR minefield at the best of times. Throw in Brexit, the Coronavirus pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, the war in Ukraine, and ‘partygate’, and it’s fair to say the Conservative party public relations team have had their work cut out.

This post looks at a few notable Conservative party PR moments over the last decade. Some garnered increased support for the party. Others severely damaged its reputation. And some split public opinion right down the middle.

But before we dive in, here’s a quick history lesson.

Conservative Party – A brief and recent history

Newspaper featuring Conservative PM Theresa May

The Conservatives (aka The Tories) have dominated much of Britain’s political landscape since the early 20th century. But we don’t need to go back that far to find some notable examples of Conservative party public relations.

The current incarnation of the party has been in control since 2010, albeit briefly as the majority partner in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. In that time, we’ve had no less than three Conservative party leaders:

  • David Cameron: 2010-2016
  • Theresa May: 2016-2019
  • Boris Johnson: 2019-Present

It’s these three prime ministers, along with their cabinets and backbench MPs that are the focus of this post. So, strap yourself in for a journey through some of the biggest Conservative party PR moments in recent history.

Good PR: Leave or remain – the people’s choice

Has there ever been a vote that divided the nation more than leave or remain?

Following five years of a coalition with Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, David Cameron hit the campaign trail in 2015 with the promise of a public referendum on the UK’s future as part of the European Union, should the Conservatives gain a majority in the House of Commons.

Calls for a referendum on EU membership had been growing louder in the previous years, from voters, UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and Tory party members alike. Cameron, although he wished to remain part of the EU, decided to give the people what they wanted and offered a referendum in the manifesto.

The Conservative party won the 2015 election, and Cameron kept his promise. A PR win if ever there was one.

But as former French president, François Hollande, said: ‘Nothing obliged him to hold the referendum when he did. This would not be the first time a commitment made at an election had not been kept afterwards.’

Nevertheless, the referendum took place in 2016 and 52% of UK voters chose to leave the EU.

PR Takeaway

Considering Cameron’s preference of remaining in the EU, offering the referendum vote was a risk, but a shrewd PR move. It showed strength of character, to commit to something many politicians and political parties had previously promised to deliver but had never followed through on.

Perhaps Cameron didn’t think he’d have to follow through on the promise, as claimed by former European Council President Donald Tusk. Maybe he believed the majority of voters felt, as he did (wrongly as it turned out) that the UK was ‘better off inside’ the European Union.

Whatever the thought process behind it, the promise was kept.

Bad PR: Vote leave campaign breaks the law

What ensued following the announcement of the so-called ‘Brexit’ referendum was dualling campaigns for and against leaving the EU, with Conservative party members campaigning on both sides.

David Cameron led the official remain campaign, dubbed ‘Britain Stronger in Europe‘, alongside former Conservative prime minister, John Major, MPs from Labour and the Green party, and prominent UK business owners, including Sir Richard Branson.

On the opposing side were Vote Leave, featuring the then foreign secretary and current prime minister, Boris Johnson, former environment secretary, Michael Gove and numerous other high-profile politicians and advisors, such as Dominic Cummings (remember him?).

The leave campaign focussed its messaging on common pain points for the British public, such as immigration control and the financially struggling NHS. ‘Take Back Control’ was adopted as the campaign slogan, in reference to the lack of control the UK had over its own borders and spending.

Red bus controversy

Then there was the big red bus. Who could forget that?

The bus promoted one of the key messages of the leave campaign: that the money saved by not paying for EU membership could be used to fund the NHS to the tune of an extra £350 million a week.

This is considered to have played a huge role in the success of the Vote Leave campaign, despite many detractors disputing the validity of the claim.

Whether the claim was valid or not, the leave campaign was successful but also broke the law. It was found in the years following to have broken electoral law by overspending to the tune of £675,315, plus thousands more on unsolicited marketing text messages.

As a result, Vote Leave was fined over £100,000, and whilst no criminal charges were filed, the legitimacy of the entire campaign was brought into question and further widened what was already a bitter divide between leave and remain supporters.

PR Takeaway

Boris Johnson and others in the Vote Leave camp have always denied the accusations and maintain they stayed within the boundaries of the law. But being found to have broken the law by The Electoral Commission is not a good look and certainly not good Conservative party PR.

Brexit divided the country in a big way, and to have doubts cast upon the amount of truth in claims such as the £350 million per week for the NHS only added fuel to an already fiery debate.

Bad PR: Leadership failure

A day after the EU referendum result, David Cameron resigned as prime minister. Having been in support of remaining in the European Union, Cameron said: ‘The British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path, and as such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction.’

A Conservative leadership election followed, and Theresa May became the second female British Prime Minister in history.

May’s run as PM was, at best, unsuccessful. In her three years as Conservative leader, she faced a vote of no confidence, called a snap election that saw a strong Tory majority reduced dramatically, and had her Brexit deal shot down in the House of Commons.

Her tenure as PM came to an end in 2019 and her resignation brought about another leadership contest which saw her replaced by the current prime minister, Boris Johnson.

PR Takeaway

The Brexit result was a monumental moment that changed the landscape of British politics forever. For David Cameron to walk away just one day after was a slap in the face to the British public.

As if this wasn’t bad enough. Theresa May’s run at the top was marred by failure and in-fighting that did nothing to restore the public’s faith in the Conservative party. This was a three-year period of poor leadership that tainted the Tories’ image.

To learn about the PR ups and downs of another national institution, read: Track Record: A Journey Through London Underground PR.

Good PR: Getting Brexit done

Having seen the problems Theresa May faced in getting a Brexit deal passed, Boris proceeded to call yet another general election to regain the lost Conservative majority and strengthen his bargaining power in negotiations with EU member states.

The campaign slogan? ‘Get Brexit Done’. Simple, and effective.

At a time when the British public were growing tired of the ongoing saga, these three powerful words helped Boris Johnson’s Conservative party win the 2019 election with the largest majority since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

An incredibly successful PR campaign for the Conservatives.

PR Takeaway

Boris saw where Theresa May went wrong during her premiership and learned the necessary lessons. Calling another general election to regain control was a risky strategy, but it paid off for Boris.

The Conservative party PR campaign was laser focused on Brexit, which had been dividing the country for three years. ‘Get Brexit Done’ was a direct, confident, and clear message. Exactly what was needed at a time of uncertainty and frustration.

Good PR: Furlough saves jobs

Just a few short months after that landmark election, the lives of billions of people around the world were turned upside down as COVID-19 ripped through the nation.

The NHS was overwhelmed, businesses closed their doors and employees were sent home.

What followed were months of uncertainty and multiple lockdowns, as the government urged us all to ‘Stay Home. Saves Lives. Protect the NHS’.

One saving grace during this period was the furlough scheme, introduced by Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, in March 2020, which paid the wages of millions of people for almost a year-and-a-half. A lifeline for businesses and employees alike.

In total, the furlough scheme (which kept people in employment and reduced the outgoings of struggling businesses that would otherwise have laid off the majority of their workforce) supported 11.6 million people at a cost of nearly £70 billion to the Government.

PR Takeaway

The furlough scheme was a huge Conservative party public relations win. The speed at which it was executed, and the level of financial support given is not something we’ve come to expect from governments of any colour.

Any intervention that provides security and stability in uncertain times is going to be welcomed. The swift government response was instrumental in lessening the financial impact caused by the pandemic.

In such unprecedented times, we can’t fault the Conservative government for how they handled this one.

Bad PR: Partygate opens a can of worms

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, restrictions on gatherings meant members of the public found themselves unable to attend the funerals of loved ones or visit relatives in hospital.

We were told to stay home and save lives, and whilst the majority of the country complied, the lawmakers were breaking the laws they made, by attending gatherings at Number 10, to celebrate birthdays and leaving dos.

Some sections of the British public did not react well to what has been dubbed ‘partygate’, and the fallout continues to this day, with internal inquiries and police investigations exposing multiple instances of the Conservatives breaching their own lockdown regulations.

And it wasn’t only the Tories breaking the rules. Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, also held a gathering with beers and a takeaway in 2021 that potentially broke lockdown rules.

Starmer has confirmed that if he is found to have broken the law, he will resign. This is in line with the expectations he placed on Johnson, who hasn’t resigned, but has apologised multiple times and taken full responsibility for what happened on his watch.

Regardless, it’s fair to say that trust in politicians is at an all-time low. A true PR nightmare.

For an example of a company surviving a PR scandal, read: Boohoo: PR Pioneers and Scandal Survivors.

PR Takeaway

There are few things that will irritate the public more than being told by leaders to do one thing whilst they do another. But this is how the Conservative party operated during a time of incredible upset and stress for the country.

Whether rules were broken intentionally or not, the optics are not good. Partygate is the epitome of bad public relations from the Conservative party, who have some way to go to make amends for this situation.

A Conservative Summary

Running a country is not an easy task and no government can appease everyone, regardless of policy. What the Conservative PR examples in this article show is that politics is a public relations rollercoaster.

At present, the Conservative party is suffering a huge PR blow. But it has the potential to remedy the situation and restore support in the coming months and years. As is the nature of politics.

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