A marriage made in Brexit - but what's next for Hanbury Strategy?
Paul Stephenson and Ameet Gill are behind one of the most exciting start-ups in public affairs for some years.
At 7am on the morning after the EU referendum, David Cameron’s strategy director was in Number 10 when he received a call on his mobile. “Michael Gove wants to pass a message to the prime minister,” pronounced the voice on the other end of the line. “Do not trigger Article 50 now. There will be serious ramifications if you do.”
Ameet Gill quickly processed what he was hearing. The caller was Paul Stephenson, communications chief on the victorious Vote Leave campaign. Gill cut off Stephenson before he could get any further. The prime minister was about to make a statement, he informed his friend and rival.
"I didn’t know what the PM was going to say but we co-ordinated statements so we weren’t doing them at the same time,” Stephenson recalls. “And then he said let’s go for a beer and talk about life afterwards.”
Two weeks later, Stephenson was briefly in line to be Gove’s communications director in Number 10. When it became clear that the senior Brexit-backing MP would not be prime minister, Stephenson sounded out some of his Vote Leave colleagues about setting up a public affairs firm. Then he met Gill in a bar in Soho to discuss the plan further.
“Ameet’s view – which I hadn’t really cottoned on to – was that having remainers and leavers come together would be interesting for a lot of people at the moment,” he says. “Certainly early on that was most compelling to people as a lot of public affairs firms were Remain focused generally, with the exception of Bell Pott. Some were quite Leavey, but having people from both campaigns meant that from early on we were at an advantage.”
Chatting to Public Affairs News in one of the brightly-coloured break-out spaces at their shared workspace on Hanbury Street in east London, Gill confirms that he was on board from the outset: “When Paul mentioned setting something up, it was almost like a no brainer to me. Because the idea of going into just one job and doing one thing wasn’t very attractive. I always wanted to set something up on my own. Then you have maximum openness and flexibility about what you want to do.”
The pair went public with plans to set up Hanbury Strategy in September 2016, naming their new agency after the office digs where they are still based. Also there on day one were Oliver Lewis and Jonathan Suart from Vote Leave and Simon Evans who was head of government affairs for the advisory firm Osborne & Partners. Just over two years later, Hanbury now has 30 staff and has just set up shop in Brussels with plans to grow the team there over the next year.
The burst of activity has made Hanbury one of the fastest-growing and most exciting start-ups in public affairs for many years. The biggest hire to date has been Theresa May's former press secretary Lizzie Loudon who joined in early 2017 as a third partner. When Bell Pottinger collapsed last year Hanbury hired a couple of operators from the now defunct-PR and lobbying firm. However, seasoned public affairs operators remain firmly in the minority.
"A lot of our clients like the fact that we instinctively understand how politicians will react to situations understand the dynamics of Westminster, Brussels and so on,” says Stephenson. “And we do things slightly differently. We don’t operate timesheets. We’re very low on bureaucracy, which for some people coming from other agency backgrounds they find a bit weird… it kind of works.”
The latest key hire for Hanbury is Kirsty Allan, a consultant from Peter Mandelson’s secretive Global Counsel agency with experience of advising investors and corporates looking to understand policy risk in acquisitions or divestments. Allan has been brought in to lead on Hanbury’s growing portfolio of private equity clients. There could also be a new hire on the cards to beef up the lobbying operation. “In the future we might need to hire a straight public affairs partner to come in and run an advocacy business,” says Stephenson.
The Tory-led shop also appears to be building up its Labour credentials, with two former Labour staffers joining as consultants in recent weeks. “I think we have now hired 30% of the 2016 Labour policy unit,” says Stephenson. “Everybody’s bored of talking about Brexit, even though it’s still big news. But the other big risk is Corbyn. Given the level of uncertainty, a lot of companies now are thinking: what do we need to do to prepare for a Corbyn government?”
It’s a strategy that might resonate with anyone watching the public affairs world closely a decade ago. In the dog days of the Gordon Brown government, Portland – set up by Alastair Campbell’s former deputy Tim Allan - was keen to send out a message that it was well-equipped to deal with the Tories who looked set to enter Number 10. Having hired various aides to Blair and Brown throughout much of the nougties, the New Labour agency suddenly started hiring the likes of well-connected Sun political editor George Pascoe-Watson and then Tory parliamentary candidate and former Cameron spin doctor George Eustice. In 2009, Allan’s mission had been accomplished. The Portland founder told this writer that “the fact that there may be a change in government is not something that makes me particularly concerned”.
These days, Portland is the biggest beast in the UK public affairs agency world with 200 staff and a revenue of £30m. Does Hanbury want to be as big as Portland one day? Stephenson is leaving the door open to a Portland-style operation: “I don’t know is the honest answer. What I like about the size of our firm now is that we’re across everything that we do. We give people freedom but Ameet and I work across pretty much every brief and we have an understanding of what our clients want…. I think once you get much beyond 30 you’re admitting that actually other people are going to lead on stuff and you’re not going to be able to be across everything.
“That probably is a good thing to do in a year or two. Maybe next we’ll start to get there, in particular we’ll start to expand in the EU. We haven’t made a decision that we want to be a Portland-style 200 people operation. At the moment, it’s nice because it’s quite intimate. I know everyone’s first name here, we know all our clients, we’re quite collegiate. It would be quite different to be a company of that size. I’m not against it, I’m just saying at the moment we’re more small-scale evolution and organic growth.”
Before overseeing communications for Vote Leave, Stephenson was a special adviser to Philip Hammond at the Department for Transport and Andrew Lansley at the Department of Health. In his acclaimed book about Brexit, All Out War, Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman describes Stephenson as “a fast-talking lover of good stories and a good lunch” and “one of the most effective Conservative media operators”.
Gill is an amiable former researcher for the historian Niall Ferguson. A one-time Labour supporter who was attracted by Tony Blair and voted for the party in 2005, he went on to become a protégé of Steve Hilton in Number 10 and one of Cameron’s most trusted strategic advisers.
"Ameet is Hilton’s guy. He likes to put his feet up and strategise,” one pal told Public Affairs News for a feature published earlier this year. “Paul is the opposite. He’ll be like: ‘How do we twist a few arms? How do we get something in the Mail?’ He gets things done."
These days, Gill tends to do more public affairs and government policy, while Stephenson leads on communications for clients such as Deliveroo and green energy firm Bulb. “I think I have my feet up more than him,” laughs Stephenson when asked about their modus operandi. He adds that “while we both have egos we don’t really rub up against each other in the wrong way, that’s why we work well”.
Unlike the vast majority of public affairs firms, Hanbury does not disclose its clients. The lack of transparency is frowned upon by rival practitioners who list their clients on the PRCA public affairs register on a quarterly basis and also sign up to industry codes of conduct.
What’s their excuse? Stephenson explains that Hanbury didn’t do any advocacy at the outset because Gill had a lobbying ban. But this summer the ban expired and the agency will soon start declaring all of its new public affairs clients. “We started to do small-scale bits. We much prefer doing the advisory side rather than the actual execution, but we will sign up to the lobbying register,” he says. “Now the PRCA board is being created we will speak to them in the coming weeks about joining. Any clients that we are doing public affairs for we will declare them in the proper way.”
Alongside Deliveroo and Bulb, Hanbury’s clients to date – as revealed by the Committee on Business Appointments – have included Barclays, GSK and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Last year, it also emerged that Hanbury gave secret advice to the campaign for then French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. The information emerged in a cache of leaked documents which were published after a Russian hack. It showed that Hanbury charged €18,600 (£15,600) for polling and “advisory services” overseen by Gill.
Asked about helping Macron, Gill says that “our polling capability with smart phones means we can poll around the world”. Will they be giving any more advice to the French president? Gill suggests he’s working on it. “We are potentially going to be doing stuff,” he says.
The former Number 10 man also makes it clear that this is the kind of work he prefers. “Having been on the receiving end of lobbyists when I was in government - not that much, but a bit - it didn’t really work that much,” says Gill. “This idea that you go in on behalf of a client, rather than them going in themselves - it’s not a good look for a client. So I’m a bit of a lobbying sceptic.” Similarly, Stephenson says that while they are thinking about beefing up their advocacy arm, “none of us really wake up in the morning wanting to run that part of the business”.
Looking at the current chaos in the House of Commons, the former Tory special advisers could be forgiven for escaping Westminster when they did. Stephenson says that “the country’s totally divided and it’s difficult to see the way through”. The former Vote Leave communications chief is now advising clients to prepare for both a second referendum and a no deal scenario.
What if a Brexiteer then toppled the prime minister? If Boris Johnson or Michael Gove or Penny Mordaunt got the top job then Stephenson would be an obvious choice for Number 10 communications director. How would he respond if they knocked on his door?
Stephenson is unequivocal in his response. “I would rule it out,” he insists. “I would be absolutely flattered, but it’s not for now. I made a commitment to the guys when we set up that we were going to try and build a business together and work with great clients. If that happened in six months’ time – which I don’t think it will, by the way – I just don’t think I could leave in good faith and clear conscience. I’d be not doing a great thing for the rest of my team.”
Gill suggests that the prime minister might be in a better position now if she had adopted a different strategy immediately after sealing her deal with the EU. Having previously appeared intent on only appeasing hard Brexiteers, May could have made a last minute key change in order to present herself as a unifying force: “In terms of selling the deal… there is an argument to be made if you’re prepared to gamble a lot more. It’s: look, fundamentally it was 52-48 and 52 per cent wanted control of immigration and 48 per cent wanted close economic ties. This deal would be giving us that.”
The former Number 10 strategy director is less forthcoming on whether his old boss might be back in the Commons any time soon. Asked about the recent reports that David Cameron wants to return as foreign secretary, he laughs before rubbishing the idea. “Who am I to advise him on his next career choice? I don’t think the reports were true, let’s just say that. I don’t think he’d want to come back to be foreign secretary.”
Both Stephenson and Gill quite happily say they spend less time in Westminster than they used to. Gill is there now and again, but mainly to see old mates for dinner or a drink. “I go to catch up with them but not to do lobbying,” he stresses.
On a day-to-day basis, the Hanbury bosses clearly enjoy being much closer to the hipster joints of Brick Lane than the watering holes of Westminster and Victoria. “I think it would be slightly depressing if we were still based there, drinking in the same pubs that we drank in every night for the last ten years,” Stephenson says. “We still go there a lot to see people. But it’s nice to have a bit of distance.”