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8 January 2018

Patrick McLoughlin deserves better than to be blamed for Theresa May’s mistakes

The latest online gaffe reveals the that the problem is further up the Conservative food chain, despite what the anti-McLoughlin lobby may say.

By Stephen Bush

As far as his critics are concerned, nothing in Patrick McLoughlin’s stint as Conservative party chair became him like the leaving of it: Conservative Party Headquarters announced (incorrectly) that his replacement would be Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, with a hastily-deleted shareable graphic.

The word on the street is that a staffer saw that the BBC had confirmed the switch and hastily tweeted out an announcement. The real reason behind the Grayling non-move – be it that he refused to take the demotion, or simply that it was never on the cards, etcetera – is almost certainly never going to be entirely clear, but the incident served as a reminder of the poor-to-non-existent nature of the Conservative Party’s online communications.

A reshuffle ought to be an occasion in which every new position is pushed out through the party’s social media channels and shared by its activists and elected officials. The nature of human affairs is that bumps in the road – like James Brokenshire’s resignation due to ill health – will derail the roll-out slightly, but the situation where a staffer is in a position to even make the mistake in the first place is a bad one. Instead, the official Downing Street department is the only thing making a splash on social media, and that can’t be used to advance a political argument for why the reshuffle is a good thing. (Which is part of the odd quirk of this reshuffle: what is the point of it? What’s the headline Downing Street wants from it? It’s not clear.)

The anti-McLoughlin lobby say that the incident summed up his tenure at CCHQ: prone to self-harm and embarrassingly bad at social media. But it actually reveals the real truth which is that the problem is further up the food chain. Departing officials can’t organise their own removal. It is true that the Conservative machine was in bad shape when the election was called, but that was because May had ruled out calling a contest and as a result CCHQ had fallen into its usual state of mid-tem disrepair. (The same is usually true of the opposition parties, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats both had assumed May would seek an early contest in 2016 so were in far better nick than they would have been otherwise.)

The major advantage for Brandon Lewis is that while both the impact of the position on the next election and McLoughlin’s culpability for the last one are overstated, he has been given a big opportunity to raise his own profile and clout within the Conservative Party.

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