How Brexit fears have shaken the foundations of UK public affairs
Five agencies are blazing the trail when it comes to Brexit-focused lobbying.
"It’s more like therapy than consultancy,” says one leading lobbyist of his work advising clients on Brexit. "They all think: Oh my God what's next?"
The leap from lobbying to therapy may be an unlikely one, but some public affairs consultancies are now pulling out all of the stops to be seen as the most trusted Brexit advisers in town. With so many businesses affected by Brexit, most agencies are finding they have no choice but to up their game in order to help those corproates still reeling from the vote on 23 June 2016.
“All of our clients were in favour of remain,” says the senior public affairs man. “There was an amazing level of agreement. We didn’t have any clients who thought ‘this is a sensible move’. Many of them now are extremely concerned about the amount of disruption, risk, uncertainty and the upset of the basis on which they do their business. Everything from intellectual property checks to customs checks to rules of origin. Things they haven’t had to think about for years have suddenly been called into question.”
Brexit work can take different forms for lobbying agencies. A number of agency bosses tell me that existing clients want Brexit advice thrown into the mix. Other current clients want an additional ‘Brexit project’ to run alongside the work already being done. And then are the brand new clients who turn up looking for help dealing with the implications of Brexit.
The challenge for London-based public affairs firms is to demonstrate to both existing and potential clients that they have not just a sound grasp of UK politics, but also a deep understanding of EU policy and process. No longer is it good enough for lobbyists just to have the inside track on what’s happening at the top of the Tory party, says one agency boss.
“People want really detailed understanding of the policy process, the personalities, timelines. So you get into very specific conversations about rules of origin, customs procedures and this sort of stuff. It requires something much more special than just speculating about how David Davis gets on with Liam Fox.”
For those agencies that are historically wedded to Westminster, this can be something of a challenge. Especially if they have been unwilling - or financially unable - to revisit their modus operandi since last June.
“By definition the UK public affairs industry tends to be comprised of political nerds and obsessives who know everything about the shadow cabinet or something. That’s not what you need,” says one experienced public affairs figure.
Among the lobbying firms who do look to be well-placed for Brexit, five stand out. They are: Portland Communications; Teneo Blue Rubicon; Hanover Communications; Hanbury Strategy and Article 50 Associates (see below). Can firms such as these point clients in the direction of any positives from Brexit? My lobbyist-turned-therapist source suggests that is a difficult search process.
“Yes, people are trying to look for silver linings, opportunities, as well. But it would be fair to say that the majority of the conversations you have are with people who are very concerned about losing things they already have or seeing the disruption of things that work well as they are.”
He adds: “There’s much more focus on damage limitation than exploiting opportunities. Because frankly people don’t see very many opportunities.”
Not all lobbyists are in the exactly the boat, but many tell a similar story. In-house public affairs directors who think Brexit will be good for business are few and far between. Another top lobbyist tells me that many clients are fearful, but there is a chink of light. Some firms have recently been reassured by the transitional arrangement that the UK has indicated that it is seeking from the remaining EU member states.
“There is for the first time a serious and workable path to an orderly Brexit,” says the agency boss. “It is good news for clients. If they want no cliff edge and an orderly Brexit there probably is a chance of that now. It’s probably 50/50 but at least there is a chance.
“The signs are now that the PM has got a way through. But it’s a very narrow path and there are boulders coming down every month that could knock everybody on the path into the abyss.”
FIVE AGENCIES BLAZING THE TRAIL ON BREXIT
Tim Allan’s agency was among the first to establish a dedicated Brexit unit. And having led the charge on Brexit, it now boasts impressive cast of big hitters.
The unit is led by partner Victoria Dean. She joined the agency last year after nearly 20 years in the diplomatic service. Among her numerous posts was a stint as deputy director, Europe, in the FCO’s London HQ.
Also on board are Henry Cook, former special adviser to Michael Gove; Amy Richards, former press office manager for Britain Stronger in Europe; and James Starkie, former Vote Leave regional press manager.
Meanwhile the firm’s part-time advisory council boasts Radek Sikorski formerly Poland’s minister of defence and then its foreign minister until 2014. But perhaps the agency’s trump card is Sir Stephen Wall, the former UK permanent representative to the European Union who also sits on advisory council.
Another key player is Portland managing partner and former Number 10 EU adviser Steve Morris. “We took a big strategic decision before the referendum to invest heavily in this,” says Morris. “Clients are looking for another level of expertise. They want behind-the-scenes insight, intelligence, a quite detailed understanding of policy and process on the London side and the Brussels side. Because otherwise they might as well read the Financial Times.”
2. Teneo Blue Rubicon
Looking to give Portland a run for its money on Brexit is Teneo Blue Rubicon.
Last year, the agency hired David Cameron’s former communications chief Craig Oliver as a senior managing director. It also brought in Beth Armstrong, former special adviser to leading Vote Leave campaigner Michael Gove. And most recently it snared the CBI’s head of EU negotiations, Steven Altmann-Richer.
The UK team also gets a helping hand from Teneo’s Brussels office and from Teneo Intelligence, a global political risk consultancy which has specialists who look at all of the EU member states. They include Carsten Nickel, who previously worked in the German Bundestag in Berlin. He is now a managing director of Teneo Intelligence, based in Brussels and covering political risk in Western Europe, with a focus on Brexit, the EU institutions, and Germany.
“The combination of London, the public affairs team in Brussels and Teneo Intelligence who do the EU 27 means that we’ve got a very interesting set of perspectives on the whole of the Brexit saga as it unfolds,” says Teneo Blue Rubicon UK public affairs chief Graham McMillan.
3. Hanover Communcations
Another of the UK’s big lobbying firms, Hanover has resisted the urge to hire a bunch of Brexit specialists. Instead the agency’s biggest hire in recent months has been Michael Prescott, the respected former Sunday Times political editor-turned- BT corporate affairs director.
But Hanover has taken decisive Brexit action by establishing a strategic partnership with the Berlin-based agency Johanssen + Kretschmer.
The two independent firms are linking up to provide to provide strategic communications and public affairs services across sectors including energy, financial services, technology and transport.
Why Germany? Hanover sources point out that the UK has a bigger trade deficit with Germany than with any other EU country. The relationship between the two governments will be a critical feature of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, they say.
Hanover chief executive Charles Lewington said in a statement: “By combining Hanover’s existing strategic advisory capabilities across London, Brussels and Dublin with Johanssen + Kretschmer’s deep understanding of the German political environment, we will be able to offer our clients an unparalleled mix of pan-European expertise to help manage the uncertainties ahead.”
4. Hanbury Strategy
Hanbury was set up by Ameet Gill and Paul Stephenson in September 2016 "to advise companies in the post-Brexit world".
Gill previously served as served as Cameron’s director of strategy in Number 10 while Stephenson is a former special adviser to senior Tories Andrew Lansley and Philip Hammond. He was most recently director of communications for Vote Leave. Also on board are Vote Leave research director Oliver Lewis and comms manager Jonathan Suart.
Speaking to Public Affairs News last year, Stephenson suggested that his new the agency would be well-placed to win post-Brexit business from exiting public affairs agencies. “Having both been on either side of the recent campaign we think we are better placed than many other people to advise companies in the post-Brexit world,” he claimed.
He added that as well as doing straight public affairs, the new agency would also be doing media relations, corporate campaigns and work for NGOs. “We are all from Westminster so we can do the public affairs quite easily, but that’s not necessarily our prime focus,” he said.
While rival agencies may stress the need for lobbyists who can see beyond Westminster, Hanbury can point to a trio of recent Brexit-related client wins as evidence that it is doing something right. Six months after it was set up, the agency has been called in to advise on the impact of Brexit by pharmaceutical giant GSK and law firms Linklaters LLP and Herbert Smith Freehills.
5. Article 50 Associates
Former Tony Blair aide Darren Murphy set up his Brexit-focused consultancy last year, two years after selling his last firm to Bell Pottinger.
Murphy is a former special adviser to Tony Blair who went on to establish the lobbying firm Centreground Political Communications.
The well-connected ex-Labour aide has set up the new shop with Jon Hudson, who was an adviser to the former shadow chancellor Chris Leslie and then head of external affairs at the Prince of Wales’ charity Business in the Community.
Murphy previously told PAN that: “Brexit is the most significant political event for a generation. It's complex and challenging. We want to help make it work for employers and employees, exporters and importers by letting their voice be properly heard and understood.”
Article 50 Associates is also a founding partner of Brexit Exchange, a Europe-wide forum for a series of high level summits. The initiative is co-chaired by Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell and is being produced by PAN publisher Dods.
It is billed as "a Europe-wide forum for an intelligent exchange of views, led by business and listened to by politicians from across Europe, focused on promoting international dialogue and bringing together various interests and organisations that should be consulted as part of the negotiation process".