Number 10 needs to find its voice on Brexit

Next week sees the release of the Hollywood movie “Deepwater Horizon”, which tells the story of how leaders and experts failed to prepare for a major catastrophe and then bungled the communications response.

I’m not suggesting Britain’s decision to exit the EU – supported as it was by 52 per cent of referendum voters – is comparable to an environmental disaster. However, it is a seismic event which calls for strong leadership and a communications effort commensurate with moments of crisis.

Theresa May cut a reassuring presence on entering Downing Street and her line that “Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a success of it” bought the government time.

But by the time Parliament returned and David Davis made his statement outlining the government’s (lack of) progress finding a negotiating position, the patience of commentators was wearing thin.

Mrs May then weighed into say that she will not give a “running commentary” on the government’s Brexit negotiating strategy, saying it would be an error to “reveal our hand prematurely”.

I get this, but a communications vacuum creates uncertainty.

It also allows others to step in and set the narrative. Japan hijacked the G20 with a clear message to Britain on Brexit, which was all the more powerful for using stark and specific language.

The European Council and the Commission have been putting out clear messages about the type of deal the UK should get and how they should go about it, almost immediately after the referendum on social media.

They have been using tactics like a Facebook Q&A, and Youtube interviews with Jean-Claude Juncker to reiterate their position.

Meanwhile, only three tweets from Number 10 since the new PM arrived have been on the subject of Brexit, and briefing to mainstream media has been minimalist.

The most active government minister has been Liam Fox, setting out his international trade stall around the world, although not all of his interventions have been deemed successful.

In business, I always advise CEO’s to keep communicating their strategy, vision and values, especially during times of crisis. The job of a leader is to narrate a strategy, not just to execute it.

I understand the government’s wish to keep its options open, and not be defined by one single issue. However, if the government doesn’t come up with a new way of articulating its vision, ahead of Article 50 being triggered, then this particular movie will not have a happy ending.

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