How will Brexit affect the UK public affairs industry?

The essay below is the winning entry for the Douglas Smith Prize 2016, awarded to the best young public affairs practitioner in the UK.  

Brexit means Brexit. Since we don’t know much for certain beyond that, the UK public affairs industry will need to stay on its toes.

For the time being, as with most industries, it must be able to adapt to this newly fluid environment. The political scene is constantly shifting, and the industry will need a deep and nuanced understanding of Government needs to sustain meaningful dialogue.

When the time comes, it must also be prepared to evolve from political rhetoric to policy-making.

Tighter hold on power

Naturally, we will witness a shift in lobbying power away from Brussels to Westminster. Far from pushing them into the political wilderness, Brexit has appeared to cement the Conservative grip on power.

Even if Theresa May has to go to the electorate to legitimise her mandate, Labour looks unlikely to gain ground any time soon and the bluster from the Liberal Democrats and UKIP seems more improbable than ever to translate into seats. Post-Brexit political strategy should include diverse relationships with the Conservative government and May’s more intimate circle.

It looks likely Parliament will play a significant role in the scrutiny of the process so robust links with members across the aisle will remain important.

Another check the Conservatives will have is the people. Theresa May’s rhetoric and policy promises so far have been steeped in public empowerment, talking of decisions made at the most local levels and a relationship with business that works for all. Any good public affairs campaign should recognise that the public still want their voice to be heard after the referendum.

Two-way street

It is a time of immense ambiguity and organisations are seeking advice on what is coming next.

The Government is looking for clues too. The rise of ‘industrial strategy’ indicates a participatory approach to policy-making and as we move towards negotiations with Europe, Government will be seeking to develop the UK’s ‘asks’.

Industry voices have already been invited to the table across various sectors as politicians look to decipher what Britain needs to thrive in a post-Brexit world. This will be especially pertinent in areas like trade where we have not considered our solo policy position for some time.

Brexit has wider social implications for businesses. International companies engaging in UK public affairs should shape their messages around emerging Government rhetoric that includes diversifying away from London and offering economic resilience. They must also be conscious that whilst the UK establishes its new self, there is likely to be a ‘buy British’ attitude to relationships with business.

Brexit offers a unique opportunity for public affairs professionals to develop ‘give and take’ dialogues with all parts of Government but will also present challenges for international clients entering that conversation.

An evolving practice

In the end, the devil will be in the detail. The Prime Minister has set out her plan, from the Great Repeal Bill to the invocation of Article 50 next March.

Whilst the recent High Court case suggests the timeline may not be as rapid, the sentiment remains – eventually, we will need to move from political rhetoric to developing regulation and legislation.

The particulars of which will be important to business. Other industries are fighting for this space, with some especially well-suited to. The Big Four have all set up Brexit units and law firms like Pinsent Mason’s have established a public affairs division.

British public affairs will need to present itself as the choice industry. It must prove we can combine public affairs and policy expertise to ignite conversations on strategic issues and work with clients to offer concrete solutions to Government.

This essay first appeared on Public Affairs Networking News. Thank you to the PRCA for taking the time to judge the award.