Home Archive June 2009 Simon says
Monday, 29 June 2009 14:12

When the new director of communications at Number 10 talks, people will listen: Hugely respected as the former head of communications at Vodafone, Simon Lewis is now the mouthpiece of the prime minister. Andrew Thomas reports

 

May 11 1994. A fundraising dinner held by Labour Party leader John Smith, the night before his premature death  of a heart attack, and the guest list reads as a who-will-be-who for the following 15 years. It’s the first time that so many figures from the world of business and commerce will publiclyidentify themselves with a political party that has been in the wilderness of British politics for so many years. The likes of Kingfisher and Phillip Morris have taken advertisements out in the programme of the night, and British Aerospace, Rolls-Royce and Kleinwort Benson all had representatives. One figure, sitting a couple of tables away from the then Shadow chancellor, Gordon

Brown, wasn’t there formally representing his employers but was there as a dutiful husband – his father-in-law is Privy Councillor Baron Pendry. The 35 year old, already regarded as one of the most talented director of corporate affairs could surely not have had any inclination how his and his hosts’ paths might cross in later years.

Fast forward a decade and a half and that man – Simon Lewis – is installed as the No. 10’s director of communications. One of the most highly charged PR roles in the country, the roll call of previous incumbents suggests it requires an almost canine aggression – from the grumpy bulldog of Sir Bernard Ingham to the wolf-like snarling of Alistair Campbell as far as the frothing pitbull that is Malcolm Tucker in BBC2’s The Thick Of It – “How dare you! Don’t you ever, ever, call me a bully! I’m so much worse than that.”

 

But Lewis has a different modus operandi. Although no pussycat, he is frequently described as genial, calm and unflappable. And what he lacks in bark, he makes up for in bite. Lewis is armed him with experience that is almost unparalleled in the UK communications industry.

 

Perhaps the big surprise is why Lewis hadn’t worked for the Labour Party earlier in his life. While his CV reads like a corporate communicator’s dream-come-true – with stints at the most prestigious comms roles in banking, energy and technology – his life seems interwoven with the machinations of politics.

 

He was educated at Whitefield Comprehensive School, north London, and then won a place at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he gained a BA in philosophy, politics and economics in 1981. He was a Fulbright scholar at the same time as Charles Kennedy. As part of his scholarship, he also spent a stint working as an intern in the office of Democratic Senator Bill Bradley in Washington DC. “I saw lobbying for the first time and got very interested in the connection between business, politics and the media,” says Lewis. “That to me is what PR is all about – the nexus between those three areas.”

 

This love of American politics has lasted. Many years later, when Lewis was head of communications at Centrica and the president of the Institute for Public Relations, he had the honour of presenting an achievement medal to George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton’s former director of communications and something of a hero to Lewis. Says Lewis, “It enabled him to utter those immortal words to me, ‘Thank you, Mr President.’ Now I can die a happy man.”

 

On his return to London, he started his career at PR agency Shandwick. Newly listed on the London Stock Exchange, it was the world’s largest PR agency. It was an excellent time to learn the ropes of corporate affairs. Margaret Thatcher had won a second term and had embarked on a massive privatisation programme. The ideology was new and the media, investors, and employees needed to understand. Shandwick, which was founded by Peter Gummer, brother of the newly appointed chairman of the Conservative Party, stepped up to the plate. Lewis has saidthat Gummer, now Lord Chadlington, was a big influencein his career. “He’s one of the few people who has made the successful transition from PR practitioner to businessman.” Lord Chadlington meanwhile speaks in glowing terms of his former protégé: “He’s an outstanding PR practitioner and a remarkably good ambassador for industry.” While at Shandwick, Lewis met Clare, to whom he is now married with three children.

 

This was 1987, and the early and mid-80s had seen a new force emerge in British politics. In 1981, the Social Democratic Party was launched by an unhappy group of Labour MPs, committed to social justice but disheartened by the Labour Party’s intransigent line on old socialist economic policies such as nationalisation. The 1983 election saw them gain 25% of the vote, close to Labour’s 28%, but by 1987 their alliance with the Liberal Party was already causing much tension at grassroots level. It was to the Social Democrats, limping to a certain election defeat, that Lewis was seconded from Shandwick. He was tasked with running its communications in the run-up to the election. He’ll be hoping his new colleagues in the Labour Party won’t endure a similar experience in 2010.

 

Despite the defeat, Lewis must have impressed. The poacher turned gamekeeper, leaving Shandwick and the consultancy world for good to become head of public relations at SG Warburg, the leading M&A investment bank of the time.

 

Five years later he moved to National Westminster Bank. It can’t have been an easy time for him. While many of the UK banks were jettisoning their international businesses and focusing on domestic markets, National Westminster resolutely hung on. In 1995, Lewis oversaw the rebranding of the organisation to NatWest, in an attempt to position itself as a less parochial player. A year before NatWest answered its critics by selling off its US operations, Lewis left – to become Director of Corporate Affairs for British Gas.

 

It was, perhaps, a surprise move. But these were exciting times. The Gas Act was waiting for Royal Approval, paving the way for the company to be demerged into three organisations: BG (oil and gas exploration), Centrica (supplying energy to the consumer) and Transco (the pipes that transported the oil and gas). With the demerger imminent, Lewis took the reigns of one of the largest communications departments in the country and oversaw the complex operation of splitting one communications function into three.

 

Lewis had already shown a slight fickleness in areas outside his professional life. His dalliance with the Social Democratic Party was over and he was now a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. Additionally, having grown-up a West Ham supporter, he was now an Arsenal season-ticket holder. With the demerger finalised, did Centrica think that their comms head, certainly talented enough for more senior management, might start seeking newer challenges? Perhaps, but in 1987 Centrica nipped the possibility in the bud by allowing Lewis to take a two-year secondment – as communication secretary to the Queen.

 

The appointment instantly put Lewis into the spotlight. It was a new position – one that had been created to address the palace’s obvious inability to understand communications and media relations. Princess Diana had died the previous year and the Queen had been pilloried for her distance, coldness and inability to engage with her subjects. Lewis changed the agenda and, according to Sir Michael Peat, Prince Charles private secretary, did a “huge amount to develop our thoughts and processes” in

the way the royal family were positioned. Lewis helped create an internal Royal family working group called the Way Forward, with the Duke of Edinburgh as chair. His tenure has always been defined by a strong working relationship with senior management, and this was no different. Prince Philip affectionately nicknamed him “the meter reader”.

 

But it was always to be a two-year stint. Despite rumours that Lewis was to go back and run Centrica’s recent acquisition of the Automobile Association or their financial services operation, he landed the role of managing director of Centrica’s European businesses. Although a senior role, it was still distanced from the board and the executive committee. So, in 2004 he was moved to director of comms and public policy. Just four months later, he announced he was leaving to take up the reigns of group director of corporate affairs at mobile telecoms giant Vodafone. Did he feel that he was being eased out? A fiercely loyal company man, Lewis won’t be drawn on the issue.

 

At Vodafone, he got what he wanted. The position gave him a seat at the table, a place on the executive committee. As ex-Chairman of the Institute of Public Relations (now Chartered), Lewis is delighted at the way that communications has evolved. “It can be difficult to be as effective as you would want if you are not reporting to the very top, though this depends on your relationship with the CEO,” he says. “When I started out it wasn’t unusual for the head of PR to report to the marketing director. Things have moved on a bit since then.”

 

His time at Vodafone saw one of the strongest relationships develop between the communications chief and the CEO. “It is important that there is an obvious connection and chemistry between the director of corporate affairs and the CEO.”

 

At Vodafone, this relationship wasn’t just desirable, it was necessary. Vodafone has been been beset by boardroom strife and at least one shareholder rebellion. Lewis helped guide his CEO through these trials including a particularly vicious boardroom battle three years ago. When Sarin left, Lewis hung around for six months, and finally, with no position lined up left in February of this year.

 

So having rescued the royal brand, kept together a factioned and devisive board, and worked on at least two major rebrands, it would seem on paper that Lewis is the ideal man to take over the role made famous by Alastair Campbell. But the timing of the move is still a little surprising given the current government’s dreadful position in any poll you look at.

 

What Lewis has done, however, is ensured that the position is not one of special adviser. Appointed by Jeremy Heywood, the Permanent Secretary at No. 10, rather than to Brown, he is, therefore, a civil servant. With that comes tenure regardless of who’s in power. In fact, he will be reporting to Heywood and Gus O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and head of the UK Home Civil Service. Although he has been involved with the Labour party for much of his career, it’s impossible to think that he would have taken the position without considering both outcomes of the next election. “He doesn’t like to wing it, he likes to be very well briefed on an issue and consider every word”, said one former colleague.

 

In fact, his skills are often said to be in his preparation. He refuses to rush into commenting, and this deliberation has given him something of an aloof reputation. One former colleague was quoted as saying he’s “tall, urbane, clever and arrogant - but not necessarily in that order.”

 

Interestingly, his brother, with whom he has quipped about falling out in his shift of allegiance to Arsenal, is the editor of the Daily Telegraph which, with its daily fare of MPs’ expense scandals, has certainly had a part to play in the Labour administration’s current poor showing in the polls.

 

Lewis would no doubt have taken that in stride. Whatever the story, with a persona described as “Mandelsonesque”, it’s hard to imagine him reacting like Malcolm Tucker once did: “And obviously if you do think about running with this story, I will personally eviscerate you, right?”

 
Curriculum Vitae: Simon LewisJuly 2009 Director of Communications, No 10 Downing Street2004 Group director of corporate affairs, Vodafone2004 Director of comms and public policy, Centrica2000 MD Europe, Centrica1998 Comms secretary to the Queen (secondment)1996 Director of corporate affairs, British Gas/Centrica1992 Director of corporate affairs, NatWest Group1987 Head of PR, SG Warburg Group1986 Head of PR, Social Democratic Party