With 85% of lobbyists predicting a Conservative victory at the next election, how are they engaging with the government-in-waiting? Neil Gibbons reports:

The figures must be depressing. Gordon Brown’s approval ratings are lower than John Major’s in the final year of the last Conservative government. An ICM/Guardian of over 1,000 voters found that 60% expected an outright Conservative victory in the next general election. Even those up for election know that change is coming. An Ipsos Mori poll the week before the Conservative party conference found Labour MPs twice as likely to expect a Conservative victory as a Labour one.

It stands to reason then that public affairs teams are seeking to establish stronger relations with contacts in the Conservative party. And many are going about this with zeal. An industry poll prior to the conference season found that more lobbyists were heading to the Conservative Party’s annual conference this year than last year, while fewer said they’d be attending Labour’s event.

The research by polling and research consultancy ComRes in association with College Public Policy saw 148 in-house practitioners asked why they attend the conferences and what resources they spend. It shows lobbyists increasingly eager to find out about, and influence, the Tories’ plans for government. The proportion planning to attend the Tory conference in Manchester has risen from 72% last year to 79% – and 85% of them thinking the party would win the next general election.

ComRes chief executive Andrew Hawkins talks of a “noticeable shift” towards investment in lobbying the Tories. “Most commercial delegates will have long ago adjusted to the prospects of Labour’s defeat at the next election,” he says. “Despite the awful economic backdrop to this autumn’s conferences, they still play a hugely important role for the of the unparalleled opportunity they present for networking and influencing policymakers.”

And once there, lobbyists will have been competing for valuable face time. A report in the Times indicated that Conservative candidates each had more than a hundred invitations for events at the party conference from lobbying firms hoping to influence them before they enter Parliament.

According to the paper, lobbying firms were focusing on 140 hopefuls who have a realistic chance of winning a seat, with one lobbyist admitting the intention was to target candidates as soon as they were selected: “They don’t have firm positions on issues, so there’s an opportunity to establish a stamp on them early rather than trying to change their mind later on, which is much more difficult”, he said.

One group promoting a third runway at Heathrow had invited those fighting marginal seats to a fringe meeting, paid for by Flying Matters, a coalition including British Airways and BAA, to show how support for a third runway might play with voters in their constituencies.

Meanwhile, several organisations have admitted hiring consultancies with the express intention of getting closer to the Tories. In August, the British Wind Energy Association hired Portland PR to establish a line of Communication into the Tory hub while the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry brought in Hanover with the same objective.

But not everyone accepts that there’s a sudden clamouring for favour. Michael Prescott is head of public affairs at Weber Shandwick. He’s adamant that a mature approach to public affairs means ensuring a good understanding of both main parties at all times.

“That minimises the need for adjustment once an election looms,” he says. “The best public affairs work is consistent and long-term – so you shouldn’t need a mad rush of activity once the polls show the Opposition positioned to take power.”

Nonetheless, it’s presumably a good time to cosy up to the predicted incomers and work on fostering key relationships?

“A lot of the ‘lobbying process’ is about understanding which Parliamentarians, of all parties, are interested in the issue at stake and then to understand why they have taken an interest,” says Richard Jukes of DJH Associates. “It may be a constituency interest, membership of a particular Select Committee, or a personal interest. It’s about identifying a cadre of support across a broad raft of interests which, if persuaded of the validity of the argument, can then help support wider appeals to Ministers and other decision makers. ”

So gleaning who will hold influence after the election is important – helpfully, Cameron has made clear he wishes to keep as much of the current team as possible in the roles they currently inhabit.

But John Lehal, MD of Insight Public Affairs, believes in burrowing even further down into the soon-to-be party of government. “We’re also focused on understanding the people ‘behind the scenes’ – people who will be in the Downing Street Policy Unit and special advisers,” he says. “This is more in a bid to be “informed” rather than trying to cosy up to those we think will help us in the future – the lobbying process has changed markedly in the last 12 years. It’s no longer about calling your mates; public policy and government affairs are increasingly fundamental to business strategy. ”

Michael Prescott doesn’t recommend placing too much emphasis on the personnel. “I take a rather unfashionable view that you need an understanding of policy and issues, not just of individuals,” he says. “In British politics, you live with the perennial possibility of a ministerial reshuffle – you just have to face up to that.”

That makes sense. But the uncertainty over many areas of Tory policy makes it hard to predict the behaviour of the government-in-waiting.

Alex Challoner is managing director of Cavendish Communications and former campaign manager to London Mayoral candidate Steve Norris in 2000. “The lack of Tory party policy at this stage is frustrating,” he says. “But the main themes are already clear – localism and decentralisation, security, and public sector debt – and a lot can be worked out from this.”

Simon Elliott, public affairs specialist at FD, says the parties truly begin to pull together the policies for a manifesto around six months before a general election. That might sound like a narrow window of opportunity between manifesto and election, but in fact it’s the time before the manifesto is unveiled that lobbyists savour.

“The lack of certainty actually makes it easier,” he says. “You’re there to intellectually interpret how government policy will influence and affect business. In short, there’s more to do.”

The Conservatives’ reluctance to reveal clear policy is understandable. Charles Lewington, managing director of Hanover, believes they have learnt from New Labour the need to keep much of their detailed policy thinking under wraps for fear that ideas are either copied by their opponents or comprehensively torn apart with the assistance of civil service.

“However,” he says, “this is no excuse for key industries and organisations not to get their viewpoint across, formally feeding information and ideas into the policy process through consultations on forthcoming reen Papers, as well as influencing the development of the party’s manifesto.”

Other lobbyists agree. Proactive public affairs practitioners don’t just attempt to read the runes – they attempt to actively shape policy.

“It’s not just about crossing fingers and hoping to come up against a politician whose views match your own ideals,” says Elliott. “It’s an opportunity for business and politicians to look at the synergies between them and then come up with good ideas.”

Clearly, one obvious way to establish closer links with the Tories is through the judicial recruitment of party insiders.

“The agencies that can offer the best insights to their clients are those that best understand the party,” says Lewington. “Ex-Labour staffers who have immersed themselves in the minutiae of this government for the last 12 years are not the best placed to advise clients on regime change, so there is clearly a premium placed on strong consultants with a Conservative background.”

They’re sometimes hard to come by, though.

“Public affairs teams are trying to beef up their Conservative offer,” says Challoner. “The problem here is that the best talent will wish to remain within the main party machine until after the election is over.”

Others insist that it’s wrong to place too high a premium on these individuals. While Precott says Weber Shandwick has always been cross-party in its make-up – “Any lobbying house making a mad dash to recast itself from red to blue is going to look desperate” – FD’s Elliott says recruiting people with an ability to interpret what the next government might do “isn’t the same as just recruiting people from the parties themselves”.

As he puts it: “It’s not about contacts, it’s about context. What’s valuable is the ability to look at a policy idea and see how might that the affect the world’s business. That might mean someone from academia or another area of politics – not necessarily a Conservative party researcher.”

It’s about finding people equipped to “identify the policy levers, develop the narrative, and execute our programme” says Insight’s Lehal. “Some consultancies will invariable try to recruit former Conservative Party staffers because they think it’ll help them get close to a new government but it’s important to learn some lessons from 1997. Just because somebody made tea for David Cameron doesn’t mean they’ll make a good political consultant.”

So while it’s a busy time for lobbyists, lurching away from the current government in order to flock to the Tories is premature.

“There’s a lot of unfinished business to conclude before any lull begins for the few weeks of the general election,” says Lewington. “A number of clients we work with have secured important commitments from this Government in recent months, and work will still need to be done to ensure that progress is achieved in the coming months despite the fact that Government momentum is slowing. Clients should keep talking to Government to the last. After all, while the figures at the top may change, the civil servants underneath will be there – come what may.”

Jukes agrees that it’s important to maintain good contacts with all parties and ensure they all understand the argument one is making but adds: “At the end of the day, success or failure is not dependent on who you know, but on the strength of your argument and making sure it is heard, and hopefully accepted, by those who will have a role in the eventual decision.”