Simon Lewis, the Prime Minister’s new official spokesman, says he only took the job on condition it would be non political and that he would be able to conduct himself with civil service neutrality. Unlike previous Downing Street directors of communications such as Alastair Campbell, Lewis is not a Labour Party appointee. He has accepted a two-year civil service contract and when asked (at a debate in London at the Reform Club 1.7.2009) whether he would like to remain at No.10 should David Cameron defeat Gordon Brown in the general election expected in May 2010, he made it clear he has an open mind and intends to wait and see what happens.
Appointing Lewis represents something of a departure for the Downing Street press office because he comes from the world of corporate communications and has not worked directly for the news media or been a career civil servant. His declaration that he would abide by civil service neutrality was perhaps only to be expected but he was adamant that wanted to be part of Britain’s “much under-rated permanent civil service” and help the government of the day achieve the level of transparency which the corporate sector had been forced adopt. Lewis spent two years at Buckingham Palace as the Queen’s press secretary in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, but most of his career has been with FTSE companies such as Nat West, Centrica and most recently Vodafone for which he was group director of corporate affairs. His brother is Will Lewis, editor on chief of the Daily Telegraph, and the lesson he drew from the whole saga about the abuse of MPs’ expenses was that it would be unwise to write off the printed media because as a result of its exclusive coverage, the Telegraph had sold more newspapers than at any time since World War II and the death of Diana. Lewis was adamant that the independence of the civil service needs to be sustained: “As a civil servant in Downing Street I shall be communicating on behalf of the government, not on behalf of a political party. I only accepted the job on that basis. Being a civil servant gives me more credibility and a sense of pride to be joining a much under-rated civil service…It is important there are people in the civil service who bring neutrality to communications…Authenticity in communications is the key, the more authentic the more likely the message will be received”. When asked whether he would seek to curb the leaking of ministerial announcements in advance of parliamentary statements, Lewis acknowledged that the 24/7 media environment had forced politicians to respond to the news agenda and the response of the government had been that the “engine has to be fed”. But he hoped politicians would come to realise that they “did not always have to respond to the media machine…Perhaps the political class have to find a new way to set the agenda”. Part of the problem was that national politics had become “more prominent” than in the past and that local people had lost contact with local politics. He hoped that in the wake of the scandal about MPs’ expenses that people would engage more and “make a real contribution to localism”. One consequence of MPs being forced to accept greater disclosures about their pay and allowances was that it would in turn put pressure on the entire political process and the news media to become more transparent. Lewis believed that the corporate sector had gone further than either political parties or the news media to embrace transparency. Companies had been forced to be far more open about their financial affairs; full disclosure was required in annual accounts and reports and about directors’ remuneration. “My hunch is that the British people will now have more influence on politics…I shall be interested to see what turnout we get in the next election and what local electors decide about some of the MPs who have been in the news”. 2.7.2009END