top of page

Rayner's Communications Crisis

19 April 2024
| by Field Team

Crisis communications are tough but they often aren’t complicated

As Alistair Campbell once noted the basics are simple: Get the story out in its entirety as early as you can. Get it out yourself - don’t let others shape the narrative. Deprive journalists the chance to gradually ‘uncover’ the full lurid details. Most people have enough credit in the bank to withstand a day of bad press. A week, less so.

It’s an approach which Angela Rayner and Labour may well wish they’d followed. They’ve perfectly illustrated how to kill a negative story by contriving to do the very opposite: with each fresh detail they’ve allowed to be drip fed to the papers - the retrofitted kitchen, the legal advice, the shredded party documents - they have managed to breathe life into a nothing story, fabricating a miniature crisis out of thin air.

This will all get more difficult next week as Rayner is slated to take PMQs, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is expected to be absent – and DPM Oliver Dowden is sure to want to capitalise on her difficulties.

All that said, it is testament to the position Labour is in that even such a masterclass in poor reactive comms is making virtually no impact on the public. Stories capture the collective imagination when they fit a wider narrative, confirming peoples’ pre-existing biases by touching on something people already feel to be true: think nineties Tory sleaze, the expenses scandal, or Leveson. But the prevailing political sentiment right now is that after a long period of Conservative government, living standards are in decline. Prices in shops feel higher, wages feel lower, and a change feels overdue. A simple story that fits into that narrative could easily blow up into a national scandal. Angela Rayner accidentally underpaying her capital gains tax seventeen years ago does not fit the bill.

That isn’t to say Labour frontbenchers can say or do whatever they want over the next six months. By spinning out the Rayner controversy for weeks on end, Labour have stolen oxygen from several of their own announcements: for example, the Daily Mail splashing a Keir Starmer quote that the country’s nuclear deterrent and defence spending is “safe in my hands” should have had every possible Labour channel all to itself for a full week without competition.

Equally, the saga has been damaging to Rayner herself: she has been effectively sidelined by her party for the best part of a month, only trusted with one significant public appearance, at which she was forced to hide in an even more literal sense as protestors ambushed her with a sign branding her a ‘TAX DODGER.” For all that Keir Starmer and his team appreciate Rayner, and her ability to draw support from areas Keir himself cannot, you get the sense he might not be able to resist a chance to uninstall her as deputy leader if a decent enough excuse came about. Rayner seems determined to give him one.

Ultimately though, the story has provided a perfect example of when an ongoing political story is noise rather than signal. If it tells us anything of real interest it is that the Conservatives are finding it almost impossible to land a glove on Labour. CCHQ know that Angela Rayner probably hasn’t committed a crime. They know the vagaries of capital gains tax law will not make for a universally understood attack line. They know the public do not believe Labour to be more corrupt than the Conservatives. At best, they could argue that given Rayner’s own robust criticism of perceived Tory tax dodging there is a hint of hypocrisy about her carelessness, something the public has a well-attuned ear for. Yet nothing Rayner has done is half as hypocritical as a multi-millionaire Conservative prime minister, whose family have avoided vast amounts of tax through their non-dom status, insisting someone else should lose their political career for inadvertently underpaying their taxes by less than a couple of grand.

Just cough up the money straight away next time, Angela. You could even get your campaign manager to pay it out of funds raised by your own party activists. As Rishi Sunak has shown, that kind of thing only becomes a resigning offence if it makes the papers.

bottom of page