Boris Johnson’s revamped communications strategy to combat coronavirus will be run like a “political campaign” after he drafted in a new team of advisers spearheaded by his Australian former elections chief, senior sources have said.
Following criticism over mixed messages and selective briefings in recent weeks, the prime minister and his key adviser Dominic Cummings recruited Isaac Levido, 36, who ran the Tory general election campaign in December.
Having already a “grid” of communications centred on the daily press conference, the government is now looking to bring in more experienced campaigners to sharpen the message – with the aim of boosting both public health and the prime minister’s standing.
Downing Street is pushing the simple three-part message of “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” to the fore, in the same way that “Get Brexit Done” worked during the election and “Take Back Control” worked for Vote Leave.
Until recently the government’s communications strategy had faced criticism from senior Conservatives for giving selective briefings after an unnamed government source briefed ITN’s political editor, Robert Peston, about plans to quarantine the over 70s before they were announced.
Johnson has been criticised for making statements on camera that contradicted scientific advice. The prime minister claimed he would continue to shake hands with people he met, said the UK could send coronavirus “packing in 12 weeks” and proclaimed that he would see his mother on Mothering Sunday despite social distancing rules.
Problems with the strategy were addressed on Thursday by Cummings and his director of communications, Lee Cain. They held a virtual meeting with Levido at No 10 at which they invited him to take a major role in the government’s strategy.
There have already been some cosmetic changes. On Monday Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, unveiled new bright yellow branding on the Downing Street podium, which drew comparisons with the arresting colour scheme used by NCP car parks and the posters for Reading and Leeds music festivals.
At the same time, there has been a willingness to slap down ministers who step away from the agreed line, much as in a general election campaign. Transport secretary Grant Shapps was contradicted by Downing Street on Monday after he advised people to shop for food only once a week.
A raft of former advisers have been brought back to Whitehall to track public opinion and gauge whether the government’s key messages on handwashing and self-isolation are getting through, including Gabriel Milland, a former head of news at the Department for Education under Michael Gove who is known for his experience running focus groups to refine messaging.
Ben Guerin, a 25-year-old online campaigner from New Zealand, is also expected to reprise his role as a strategist from December’s successful election.
A source with knowledge of No 10 said Levido was part of an effort to move the operation into a “campaigning mode”, starting from last week, after a recognition that communication had not always been effective.
A Whitehall insider said that Johnson and Cummings, both of whom are self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms, have sought recruits who proved to be reliable operators in their victories at the general election and 2016 EU referendum.
“It is a campaign to win over the public to the government’s message. They have a proven track record,” the source said.
Cummings’ recent absence from Downing Street has cleared the way for the continued rise of Levido – a protege of Sir Lynton Crosby, and described by one friend as “the new Lynton”. A long-time campaign obsessive, Levido now finds himself at the heart of the British government, shaping how Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis is perceived by the public.
Described as an intense, obsessive individual who is loyal to his team, he is known for pulling all-nighters and pushing rigid message discipline. He says he remains in close contact with Crosby, 63, according to individuals who worked on the Conservative election campaign. When the scale of the Tory victory was revealed, others in the office began singing “Oh Isaac Levido” to the tune of The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army in recognition of his role.
Hailing from the New South Wales town of Port Macquarie, he previously worked on the 2015 and 2017 general election campaign, plus Zac Goldsmith’s 2016 bid to be mayor of London. He has also done messaging for the likes of mining giant Glencore, according to sources, plus political campaigns from the Caribbean to Asia.
“He hates the fiscal spending craziness,” said one individual who knows Levido. “He’s a proper conservative like Lynton.”
Guerin is one half of the Auckland-based social media campaigns business Topham Guerin, which has previously been exposed by the Guardian for its role helping to run Facebook astroturfing campaigns on behalf of major polluters. The pair are also former colleagues of Crosby and worked closely with Levido to re-elect Scott Morrison in Australia’s general election.
During the British general election campaign, Topham Guerin were in charge when the Conservatives deceptively rebranded their official press office account as FactCheck UK – while also taking particular delight in winding up those who reported on their online adverts creating “boomer memes” by issuing knowingly terrible parodies of their own work through official Conservative accounts. Their online activity is known for its blunt messages and shareability.