In a year where the best connection any consultant could wish for was decent broadband, the public affairs industry has come through three lockdowns in robust shape. Great advice which protects and promotes a business is always highly prized, perhaps even more so during a pandemic. Add to this the legal and regulatory uncertainty triggered by Brexit and, for the best lobby firms, business is booming.
The Mace compiled its list of the Top 100 Political Consultants with the input of specialists who had a combined 100 years of industry experience. We asked senior practitioners: who do you admire? Who do you find yourself up against in pitches? Whose work has changed policy and politics? While a list like this will always be subjective, the consultants we have included have been endorsed by their peers. To keep its credibility, the list will continue to evolve, and form part of the 2021 Westminster Index, to be published later this year as the definitive Who’s Who guide to British politics and public affairs.
The list’s dynamic nature reflects not only how practitioners move between in-house roles and consultancies, but also how the industry is evolving. According to Francis Ingham, director general of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), there have been significant changes in the last five years, with “a lot less relying on personal contacts, and a lot less direct engagement between lobbyists and politicians.
“Then there’s the rise of digital. [Initially] there was slow take-up by the public affairs industry, but it’s now a key part of most lobbying campaigns.”
Nick Williams, managing director at BCW Global, agrees: “We are only now just starting to come to terms with the enormous impact that technology is having on all types of communication,” he says.
“It may be trite, but no one could have predicted the rise of Facebook 20 years ago, and technology is moving much faster than that now. Being ahead of the curve and embracing it will be key.”
Only a handful of consultants on the list started their careers in public affairs. But it’s not a given that a hotshot political journalist or special advisor will make a success of switching to consultancy.
“Some simply aren’t commercial – or don’t have the requisite people skills to charm demanding clients,” says one executive involved in the Mace 100 selection process. “Others struggle with the changing dynamics: morphing from being someone who many politicians court – whose calls are always taken – to someone who might be perceived as no longer useful to them and on the periphery.”
For those who can make a successful transition, the goal is often not just to change career but to run their own businesses. An impressive 35 per cent of our list are entrepreneurs, while a handful of others have now sold up but are staying in the game in senior advisory roles. These new political start-ups are eschewing traditional agency models in favour of high-margin, specialist consultancies employing fewer analysts and account executives and more senior-level advisers.
“[Political consultancy] attracts so many self-starters because it appeals to ambitious, clever, intellectually curious people who at some point realise they’re making a lot of money for their bosses and would rather make it for themselves,” adds Ingham.
The skills and experience gained as a special adviser remain prized by the private sector: 22 per cent of our list has served as spads in the last ten years, and if that time scale is extended and stints supporting the shadow cabinet are acknowledged, the figure is closer to a third.
However, spads can’t just waltz out of their departments with the inside track on government thinking and immediately commercialise that knowledge. Before taking up a new role, former advisers, senior civil servants and ministers must seek guidance and approval from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. The aim of its rules is “to avoid any reasonable concerns that a civil servant might be influenced in carrying out his or her official duties by the hope or expectation of future employment… or on leaving the civil service, a former civil servant might improperly exploit privileged access to contacts in government or sensitive information.”
Clearly, if you have previously advised prime ministers, you can credibly be placed before a FTSE board member and provide strategic counsel on political and reputational risk. But one industry leader warns against vanity hires.
“You want your consultants to deploy the skills and insights they’ve learned on the campaign and in office to effect change. If
it’s just about a name for your letterhead, there’s a law of diminishing returns: like Love Island, there’s always someone from the new season who could do that role. If you want anecdotes, hire an after-dinner speaker.”
In reality, CEOs are often just as connected as their advisers and may have relationships with senior politicians which go back to university days or previous careers.
“If your client already plays tennis with Liz or skis with Kwasi, they’re not going to be impressed with fatuous name-dropping,” points out one senior consultant. “They want strategic thinking and tangible results which protect their licence to operate.”
He goes on to recall a conference call between an American CEO, his top team of advisers and his big-name consultancy hired at great expense to handle a reputational crisis in the UK. The CEO, more used to having the president take his calls to the White House, demanded to know what progress had been made.
“[The consultancy head] remarked that he was planning to attend the same drinks party as [then chancellor] George Osborne that evening and he would see if could have a ‘quick word in his ear’.
“There was a flurry of F-bombs and [the CEO] exploded that he wasn’t paying thousands for him to drink f**king cocktails.”
While years in Westminster will fatten your contacts books, those who made the Mace’s cut know that legitimate lobbying has moved on from, say, texting the chancellor to help a client access government funding.
“The smart operators know they can’t grow their businesses on their own contacts and track records and need to empower their teams,” reflects one consultant who leads in-house public affairs teams.
“I remember being pitched to by Hanover. [CEO] Charles Lewington was there at the start of the meeting, introduced his team, told us how they had his total confidence – and then left. I didn’t feel short-changed – and the team was confident and prepared. It was an elegant way to show that he would be there if he was needed but there should be no pretence that he would be running my business day-to-day. A class act.”
Ts and Cs
The UK government introduced the Register of Consultant Lobbyists in 2015 to enhance the transparency of those seeking to lobby ministers and permanent secretaries on behalf of a third party. An organisation is required to join the statutory register if they engage in lobbying activities as defined by the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. Due to the narrow scope of the legislation, however, those required to register constitute a small proportion of the UK’s lobbying industry – a loophole that David Cameron recently tested. The latest Register for Consultant Lobbyists lists 172 consultant lobbyists (agencies) and 1,052 clients. No information is kept on the cost of lobbying or what issues are being advocated.
Francis Ingham believes the best indication of the size of the UK public affairs industry is the PRCA’s latest quarterly register, which lists 100 agencies and in-house teams, 2,000 or so individuals and over 3,000 clients. However, he estimates there is probably a third more consultancies who choose not to sign up. The charity Transparency International estimates that £2bn is spent on lobbying in the UK each year.
Although cleared of any lobbying breach, David Cameron’s conduct has left many political consultants seething. Chris Rumfitt, founder of Field Consulting, points out: “In common with every other so-called ‘lobbying scandal’, there are no actual professional consultant lobbyists involved.”
The Index in numbers
● Diversity remains an issue for politics and public affairs, as it is in senior leadership teams across professional services. The Mace’s list is 22% female: the same percentage of women as there are in the Cabinet. 95% of our list has white British or white Irish heritage.
● Not all consultants wear their personal political leanings on their sleeves, but our analysis suggests that 44% are Conservatives, 16% are Labour supporters, 3% (including Luciana Berger) are Liberal Democrats and 1% supports the SDLP. The remaining 36% are undeclared.
● While councillors are often viewed as the worker bees of the political world, 13% of The Mace’s list have served – or still serve – as councillors. “The rules are clear,” says Francis Ingham. “You’ve got to declare it and you can’t do any work [lobbying] your own local authority.”
● Few of the Top 100 started their careers in consultancy: 18% previously worked as journalists, while 22% have served as special advisers over the last ten years.
● Though previous experience as a parliamentary researcher is not uncommon, 3% have served as parliamentarians either in the Commons or the Lords. One has served in a devolved assembly.
● Intellectual curiosity and the ability to understand the political dynamics of an issue are skills which make a great consultant: 7% have honed these while working for think tanks; an impressive 8% have worked with or for Sir Lynton Crosby.