On the same day Britain’s new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, came into power on a wave of relief and tentative goodwill he has made a major error with his Strategic Communications.
When he first spoke to the nation his core message was summed up in one sentence, ‘This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.’ He then punched that message home, with the two short sentences that immediately followed, ‘Trust is earned. And I will earn yours.’
‘Integrity’, ‘professionalism’. Certainly, absolutely the right message. Professionalism as a stark contrast to the chaos of Liz Truss’s disastrous premiership, and equally to Boris Johnson’s shambolic way of running things.
Even more important though was the very pointed reference to ‘integrity’. Aside from his cult followers and the delusional, everyone knows Johnson could not be trusted and lied as easily as breathing. The wider national loss of trust in him lies at the root of the Tories disastrous decline in public opinion and added to already low levels of trust in politics and politicians generally.
He therefore simultaneously acknowledged his party’s previous failing in this core area and made a promise to put it front and centre of his administration.
The right message, succinctly put and well received.
Then what does he do? He appoints Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, less than a week after she had been forced to resign from the same post for a serious breach of ministerial guidelines.
Now, for those lucky enough to not follow the in and outs of current British politics, let me explain. Braverman is a hard right politician of towering ambition who sent an official classified document to a political ally, in a clear breach of how ministers are meant to behave– trust me, you don’t want any more detail.
Her resignation letter said, ‘The business of government relies upon people accepting responsibility for their mistakes... I have made a mistake; I accept responsibility: I resign.’
There is debate over the seriousness of the breach and Braverman’s true motives in resigning. However, the fact remains she publicly accepted she needed to go and taking responsibility for breaching ministerial guidelines is a major feature of the current controversies swirling around the Tories and Boris Johnson.
In other words, accepting responsibility – and taking your punishment – for breaching ministerial guidelines is a matter of integrity.
So, in re-appointing Braverman, Sunak undermined his core message. He failed a very early say/do test – he said ‘integrity’ but didn’t do it.
It is not made better by his motives. The backing he received from Braverman was a big surprise, given she is a standard bearer of the hard right and far from a natural ally. It was certainly important to his success. In other words, her job is a reward in a back door deal to get her support. That hardly screams integrity.
Now of course politics is often a dirty business, grubby compromises are a stock in trade, and you do not get much more grubby and compromised than the current Tory Party.
But the whole point of Sunak is to at least reduce the grubbiness. I would even argue he did not need to do it. If he needed to throw her and the hard right a bone, then a lesser cabinet post would have done. After all, he will never be stronger than now when a desperate Tory Party cannot afford an early split.
Instead, he has given an early indication of weakness and if he thinks the ambitious Braverman and her backers will be grateful for long he has got another think coming.
The wider response to Braverman’s appointment has been toxic and the government’s defence uncomfortable. As a Strategic Communicator then I teach that rule number one is aligning actions and words. Sunak has made a mistake.
In his speech, he said ‘Trust is earned. I will earn yours.’ He is right about trust and he did not earn any with this.
Hi Mark, language is important - the word as well as the deed. In terms of wording, I would have preferred to hear ‘I will strive to earn yours’ . The emphatic ‘I will earn yours’ assumes only the speaker has agency in this matter. Trust is a compact between two or more parties. VP