Negotiating the past is tricky. Opinions and situations change and, unfortunately for the modern day politician, the internet remembers. That’s why the removal of Theresa May’s previous comments on Heathrow from her own website are so damaging to her reputation.
Across the Atlantic, the situation playing out will be considered the worst-case scenario for political spin for many years to come. Trump’s unabashed volte-face on a litany issues (to speak not of the sexual allegations) is brazen. During the Presidential debates he frequently interrupted candidates and moderators alike to challenge citations of previously expressed views, including on Putin, Iraq and climate change.
The evidence trail of tweets, citations and recordings to the contrary, however, are irrefutable. A life lived in the public eye has done little to teach Trump how words are documented for perpetuity, no matter how much you’d like to take them back.
But what can the strangest Presidential Election teach British politics about how to change your policy without tripping up on your own words?
It’s been just over 100 days since Theresa May was crowned de facto Prime Minster, and without a manifesto and only a single speech to go on, she seemingly marked herself as the continuity candidate. This notion was promptly dispelled during a reshuffle that left Whitehall reeling as departments were created and abolished at dizzying speed. However, despite the deliberate introduction of a new vanguard, the Cameron legacy looks set to destabilise May leadership for the first time.
The publication of the long awaited Howard Report has recommended Heathrow as the site of the highly contentious airport expansion.
Cameron had the luxury of a long report process, and a General Election to win. He was able to be hard-headed about the future of Heathrow, declaring that “the third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts.”
The incumbent Government, on the other hand, is compelled to respond to the carefully researched report and accept its conclusions.
From a PR perspective, it is, of course, the challenge to understand the emotive issues for those living around Heathrow, balanced with the need for infrastructure and investment. The Report is there to provide the evidence base to support a careful campaign media demonstrating the need for a change in Conservative policy. While not easy, in the long run explaining how and why a policy has changed is always going to be wisest.
Of course, it’s very human when faced with an immediate unpleasantness to just pretend something didn’t happen; perhaps that you’ve never held that view, you have no recollection of that event or you weren’t even there. While Trump is the extreme (and of course Clinton’s deleted emails do the same) it’s common behaviour to reach to denial rather than facing things head on.
Unfortunately, the internet doesn’t forget. The way in which data is shared and collated means that your digital fingerprints are easy to find. Which is exactly how the Prime Minister was caught deleting anti-Heathrow statements off her own website this week. An attempt to avoid some tricky (and unavoidable) questions has only served to raise trickier and more easily avoidable ones. The media backlash has been brutal, and has only served to weaken May’s position as a trusted authority.
May’s leaked Goldman Sachs speech also emerged this week, which was met with a few disparaging views. Sitting at odds with the current push towards a hard Brexit, the impact is lessened by May’s repetition that the Referendum provided a mandate that ought to be respected.
Unpleasant as it may be, the only way forward is to acknowledge the past and look to the future, or risk being branded a liar for years to come.