Kirstie Allsopp is in trouble. The posh-but-nice telly lady committed two cardinal errors of modern life: first by saying something interesting on Twitter, and second by assuming people would credit her with good intentions.
“‘If your job can be done from home it can be done from abroad where wages are lower. If I had an office job I’d want to be first in the queue to get back to work and prove my worth to my employer. I am terrified by what could be on the horizon for so many.’
I think most fair-minded people would read that as a clumsy but well-meaning attempt to warn people about some tough economic times ahead, and not a criticism of the people who may well suffer in those times.
When I was a very young journalist, an aged Scottish lawyer kindly told me the best way to avoid ever being sued was ‘never impute a mental state’ – especially motive. Since you can never really know what is in someone’s mind when they do something, don’t guess. And definitely don’t guess that it’s something bad.
A great deal of public conversation today runs contrary to that advice. It is commonplace to impute the motives of others, even if — or perhaps because — the inferred motivation is at odds with the statements of the original authors. So the fact that Allsopp has repeatedly attempted to explain that she was offering advice, not criticism, counts for nothing. Thousands of people have read her original tweet and decided that her words spring from disdain and contempt for those she writes about.
Allsopp has, perhaps understandably, said she is taking a break from Twitter. I hope she has a nice time. For what it’s worth, I think she’s largely wrong about offshoring jobs and mostly wrong about employers’ attitudes to people who return to the office early. But her overall point, that workers should brace for a rough autumn, is broadly sound.
I also hope that Rishi Sunak read that Tweet and has learned from it. The Chancellor needs to start doing what Allsopp attempted to do, regardless of the political risks involved.
Whatever the economic meaning of that spending, the politics are remarkable. The Chancellor’s face is now appearing on posters in pubs and restaurants, thanks to his ‘Eat out to Help Out’ scheme. That, as people say in Westminster when they want to sound worldly and professional, is cut-through.
But of course, this can’t last. Allsopp is right, at least about the coming economic storm. Redundancy announcements are starting to land like autumn leaves and there are more to come as the furlough money tapers down.
There is surely a risk that people who love Sunak today, perhaps because he’s effectively paying them to go to the beach while furloughed, come to curse his name in the autumn when their employer lets them go, blaming the Chancellor’s withdrawal of support.
In political terms, is there anything Icarus-Sunak can do to prevent that fall back to earth? Assuming that he sticks with his decisions to wind down the furlough scheme and other emergency support, all he can really do is communicate those decisions better, and sooner.
And this is where he should learn from Allsopp. She may have been clumsy, but she was right – and well-meaning – to try to prepare people for worse times to come. Sunak needs to start preparing the country too. He needs to get people ready for a potentially gloomy future without making that scenario more likely.
That’s a tortuously difficult communications challenge. Economic confidence is, as ever, vital right now, and a gloomy Chancellor warning people about job losses to come is unlikely to encourage the consumer spending that’s badly needed.
And if Allsopp had a hard time because she’s a posh lady on Twitter talking about people losing jobs, imagine the maelstrom of bad faith that awaits an astronomically wealthy ex Goldman Sachs Tory Chancellor who attempts something similar.
But if there’s one thing voters will hate more than an autumn downturn, it’s an autumn downturn they feel the Government didn’t prepare for or warn them about. Tough times are coming and Rishi Sunak, for all his sangfroid and largesse, cannot change that fact. All he can do is help people to get ready.
This will, to repeat, be agonisingly hard and delicate, the sort of political challenge that ends careers and shatters dreams. But anyone who wants to be prime minister should learn how to give people bad news as well as good.