A party defined largely by the plummeting reputation of its outgoing leader Boris Johnson, the Tory leadership race gives us some clear dos and don’ts when it comes to managing reputation.
At the time of writing, we’re down to the final two – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. This means that around 180,000 Conservative party members (equivalent to 0.27% of the population) will choose the next Prime Minister.
How much does reputation management matter in the leadership race?
While there have been TV debates and social media campaigns (with varying levels of success), the candidates are playing to a very specific demographic. And so, its their reputation specifically among Conservative party members and other MPs that matter most.
In the long run, the winning candidate will lead the Tory party in the next General Election, which is currently slated for 2024. But, given the chaotic state of UK politics since the Brexit vote in 2016, it’s possible that an earlier GE could be called.
For now, let’s dig deeper into the campaigns for the Tory leadership and how each candidate has attempted to manage their reputation.
How are the candidates for Tory leadership managing reputation?
The candidates started from a baseline of uncertainty and potentially poor reputation due to the ousting of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Since Johnson won the 2019 General Election with an 80 seat majority amid vague promises of ‘getting Brexit done’, there has been reputational disaster after disaster. From the way Johnson dealt with the pandemic in the early days – missing COBRA meetings, downplaying its seriousness – to the provable lies about everything from Partygate to PPE spending, it’s fair to say that his reputation has nosedived.
According to YouGov, Johnson’s reputation as Prime Minister was at an all time low, before he resigned. He is, of course, still a ‘caretaker Prime Minister’, which is a role without precedent. This is arguably continuing to damage the reputation of the Tory party as he is still making policy decisions and, in theory, is preparing to stack the House of Lords with Tory loyalists.
Johnson’s vocally unrepentant stance and clear reluctance to resign has done little to grow his reputation among most of the population. However, he still maintains a hardcore pocket of support, showing just how complex managing reputation is at every level.
Managing reputation – crafting a winning strategy
While Johnson is now making noises that perhaps he’d quite like to stay on as Prime Minister after all, the UK will have a new Prime Minister on 5 September 2022.
The race for leadership started on 12 July 2022. Candidates needed 20 MPs to back them to make the cut. Eight candidates made it through this round, which the went on to a knockout competition based on MP votes.
At this stage, then, candidates had to shape their campaign and manage their reputation to appeal to their colleagues and peers only. Whether their reputation management would meet the needs of an increasingly frustrated populace was largely immaterial.
Managing reputation as a leadership candidate
Reputation management is a huge part of politics in general. And in this leadership challenge, perhaps more so than ever before. Politics in the second decade of the 21st century are arguably driven more by reputation than anything else.
Johnson won his majority because he had developed a public persona that convinced enough people he’s someone who ‘gets things done’, who stands up against the perceived threat of the EU and has the charisma and personality to be a Churchillian style leader.
Much of this reputation was carefully crafted over time by Johnson himself. His stance on Brexit was famously ambiguous before siding with the ERG. Whether he truly believed Brexit was best is up for debate, but he did win a majority based on his pledge to ‘get it done’.
However, as we’ve seen, Johnson’s actual leadership has left the country more divided than ever. Soaring inflation, increased trade union action leading to transport strikes up and down the country, inflated energy costs and 14 million people living in poverty could hardly be described as an impressive legacy.
Reputation challenges facing leadership candidates
The candidates all had a tough road to travel in convincing the right people that they should lead the party, and therefore the country. Let’s briefly look at them one by one and analyse their campaigns.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps made a bid for leadership that caught many by surprise. Shapps emphasised his reputation as a transport secretary that has delivered while in Government, betting that this would make him a dependable prime minister. However, his reputation failed to win support from MPs, and he was forced to drop out before the contest really got going.
You may be wondering who Rehman Chishti is, and you wouldn’t be alone. Given a sparse ministerial record and next to no support from MPs, Chishti didn’t even make it to the first ballot. Reputation management starts with establishing a reputation, particularly at this political level.
Without this, Chishti didn’t stand a chance of garnering enough support internally or externally. Having no public reputation is not a good thing, not in politics or business. Crafting and managing reputation must be a proactive, deliberate strategy – one that Chishti failed to implement.
The former health secretary quit Johnson’s government on 5 July after playing a significant role in the events that eventually led to Johnson’s resignation. Whether this then damaged his reputation with other MPs, or whether he should have learned his lesson from the two earlier times he bid for leadership and failed is up for debate.
The former health secretary was vocal and direct about Johnson’s failure as a prime minister. Perhaps the best demonstration of just how far the Tory party has shifted to the right is that Hunt positioned himself as a centre left candidate for leadership. Late to launch his campaign and with a long legacy of defunding the NHS behind him, Hunt failed to get the 20 MP votes needed to make it through the first round.
Zahawi accepted the Chancellorship from Johnson in the final reshuffle before the prime minister was forced to resign. He is considered to have played a central role in the downfall of Johnson, failing to resign himself while writing a letter of no confidence in the PM who had just appointed him, Chancellor.
This clearly damaged his reputation with other MPs, but he is also under investigation for his tax affairs – something that is unlikely to go down well with voters. His leadership pitch centred on social mobility and economic transformation, but his mixed reputation ultimately meant he failed to secure votes.
It’s safe to say that the attorney general has failed to get many people on her side at all. Staunchly loyal to Johnson, regardless of his being found to have breached ministerial code and broken COVID laws, Braverman bizarrely concentrated on one issue for her campaign – that she would fix immigration by pulling the UK out of the European Convention of Human Rights.
Confusion reigned regarding this as the ECHU was formed after WW2 by Churchill (among others) and, as such, is entirely separate to the EU. Either way, Braverman was kicked out after the second ballot. Managing reputation is definitely something she needs to focus in the future.
Tugendhat found favour with the TV debate viewing public after being the only candidate willing to call Johnson a liar. Tugendhat is the chair of the HoC foreign affairs select committee, and while he has no direct Government experience, represented a ‘clean break’ from Johnson and everything his era contained. Endorsed by a number of senior pro-Brexit MPs, and with a military service to play on, Tugndhat seemed like a potential, albeit outlying, winner. It didn’t last, however, and he was out during the third ballot.
Little known outside of the Westminster bubble, Badenoch is a former equalities minister. Her candidacy was marked by a strident pitch regarding social issues and she won the backing of Michael Gove – the ex-levelling up minister who was fired by Johnson on the last day of his leadership.
The junior trade minister was clear she was interested in leadership for a number of years. Leaning heavily on her (minimal) experience with the Royal Navy, Mordaunt pitched strong pro-Brexit views with social liberalism. Starting with a very low profile, Mordaunt gained enough internal support to make it to the final ballot before being knocked out. Her social media campaign was marred by careless video creation that failed to gain permission of some of those featured, forcing Mordaunt to change it after launch.
She’s foreign secretary and she loves to pepper her social media with pictures of herself looking suitably leader-like. But does the fact that she was a Remainer pre-Brexit vote and has apparently reversed all these core values since then in order to gain her position, go against her?
Internally, it seems not. She models herself on Thatcher and she’s been embraced by those MPs who remain firmly on the right. She’s had five cabinet roles that she insists she’s delivered on, and she also pledges to leave ‘Johnsonism’ in the past. As the campaign has gone on, Truss has leapt on an anti-trade union stance and an anti-immigration stance – both clearly targeted at the core of the Tory party membership.
She proposes a crackdown on trade unions, with a pledge to break their rights within 30 days of taking leadership. Predictably enough, this will do little for her reputation among millions of people struggling to get by during the cost-of-living crisis, nor will it go down well with those who would like to keep hold of the human rights they do have. However, Truss is targeting those who will vote for the leadership race with the kind of tunnel vision that may well see her take the top spot.
Sunak has been all about the social media campaigns with his ‘Ready for Rishi’ slogan catching people’s attention – for good or ill. It was leaked that he actually bought his campaign website domain name back in December 2021, suggesting that he has been planning this for a while.
And, for those who still support Johnson, Sunak is a ‘back stabber’ who was disloyal to the man who gave him the role of Chancellor. His main pledges surround fiscal discipline, which is proving unpopular with some.
Why is managing reputation important?
The latest TV debate between Sunak and Truss (at the time of writing) spawned a lot of potentially damaging headlines for both candidates.
According to Sky News Politics Hub, the contest is getting nasty, with Sunak accused of ‘mansplaining’ and Truss allegedly withdrawing a potential job offer for Sunak should she become prime minister.
A snap poll after the debate on 25 July 2022, showed that Conservatives are largely in favour of Truss, while Labour voters prefer Sunak. The audience for the debate was split with 39% preferring Sunak and 38% Truss.
So much of this is informed by the reputation management that both candidates have undergone since they started their political careers. Just under half of voters believe Sunak is the “most competent” and 35% say he would be a better prime minister than Truss. However, his reputation has taken a nosedive from the high points as Chancellor during the pandemic to the present.
The bookies favourite right now is for Truss to win, and we’ll see what happens, but both candidates are dealing with their public reputation. It may mean the difference between their future as Prime Minister or as the loser.
How does political reputation management work?
Managing reputation in politics is extremely complex. By the time ministers reach a leadership contest that will see them potentially as Prime Minister during the next General Election, they have typically served many years in politics.
And, during those years, reputation build up. The public perception of a politician is built in the same was as a celebrity, business leader or anyone else whose job entails communicating with the public.
For those who have long been politically engaged, Truss comes with an enormous amount of apparently contradictory baggage. How, pro-Brexit MPs ask, can Truss really be on board with Brexit when she campaigned to Remain?
Truss answers this with her record of trade deals achieved since the 2016 referendum. However, a quick fact checks shows that the majority of these a rollovers and have little to do with Truss herself.
Sunak’s reputation is largely dependent on the pandemic. Relatively unknown before then, as Chancellor he was seen as the man who came up with fiscal support for businesses and individuals dealing with extended lockdowns.
His popularity was highest in the very early days of the pandemic, when he appeared to offer solutions to the most pressing problems of the people. Whatever the final result of the leadership campaign, the reputation management of each finalist is absolutely key to their success.