The flames of Ash Wednesday

Day 5

Wednesday 22nd February

Not often a morning starts with a belly deep laugh but this one certainly did. Ash Regan’s fiancรฉ would be brought into the WhatsApp group chat at this point.

It is always an awkward moment when you meet a candidate’s partner, you never quite know their politics or how deep their knowledge is – but they always want to contribute. As her partner joined the already established chat, where we had meetings, notes, and press releases – his first move was to change the chat profile picture to Ash standing in front of flames.

I laughed and thought – oh wow we’ve bagged ourselves a full-on cybernat here. This is going to be hilarious and difficult. Allison called me and expressed the same opinion. We were chuckling away. However I’m going to let you know – we were totally, totally, wrong. The sharpest political and operational mind in the room – may have been Ash’s partner. An incredible man.

It’s very early morning in the team chat but we’ve got the day ahead headlines and the talking points from the radio. It’s clear it’s shaping up to be another bruising day for the candidates on the trail – and it is absolutely going to be about religion again.

As an atheist, it honestly doesn’t cross my mind what the candidates think on religion – if they acted in a religious manner that was contrary to the values that the country as a whole respected, I’d probably be vocally upset but other than that I don’t usually worry too much about what people believe. It was rather surreal.

Alex Salmond once said he preferred people of faith. I always wondered if it was because they, therefore, were more susceptible to messaging without evidence. I couldn’t recall though Salmond or Sturgeon ever particularly expressing much in the way of religion. Naively I really thought we’d be off Kate and Humza’s religion by now, but oh no, it was just getting started.

However today was the day when Kate would start getting negative endorsements, and people would actively remove themselves from supporting her. Humza would be called incompetent and brandished as a safety risk by ‘The Muslim Council of the UK’ and by ‘The Indian Council’.

The great Forbes Reset would be announced. It was a bizarre feeling in the team at this time, there was a cautiously jubilant feeling that our ‘opponents’ were being tackled – but these people were friends – they didn’t deserve this feast upon their religion.

We held a team meeting and started planning our ‘North East’ trip, part of the listening and reflecting on the views of the members. At the same time, Ben McPherson would announce he wasn’t standing, and many of us had to google who he was. Jenny Gilruth would be getting touted as a Kate replacement, we didn’t believe this had much mileage.

The media desk is absolutely rammed at this point. The Daily Express not content with Ash saying she wasn’t religious wanted to know if she’d been baptised or confirmed. Obviously seeking a secret religion – we found this quite funny. The media requested sit-down interviews – but Ash was still in training – she’d meet Robin McAlpine for a primer on Common Weal Policy and Media. To appease – we offered 1-2-1 interviews at the launch, on top of questions from the floor and a press huddle. We’d be offering the largest media access of any campaign.

Our media lines were getting stuck at various stages – so we created a ‘Front Door’ – which any line that went past it was committed to and was available to press. We also started sending information on the launch location to the press.

As we got the front door opened and the information out – Kirk, Robin and Ash were “spotted” in the Scottish Parliament – and that became our “scandal”. Despite the fact Kirk had worked for the SNP for many years and led a lot of the new-generation digital initiatives that led to the biggest victories of the SNP, the press was more interested in his few months of working with the ALBA Party. Kirk hadn’t been a member of the ALBA Party in some time, likewise, we had invited him to the team – Ash didn’t really know him.

Our team decided we needed an update on nominations, we requested and got ignored by HQ, but we started speaking with Kate’s team to see if they’d like to know also. Our pitch was that we should get to know if we had crossed the line of nomination. HQ kept ignoring it.

Ash wanted to speak on the dreadful abuse both Kate and Humza were experiencing. We had a team meeting online about how to best approach it. We decided a generic ‘call for calm’ was best to TV camera. A few hours after we concluded the discussion – Ash went out there and delivered it.

We were all very impressed – Ash seemed very First Ministerial and the one breaking through. Usefully for everyone else the media actually decided to (for the most part) actually heed our call and started to lay off on the fever pitch of religious questioning.

It’s around 4pm and The National had a very simple online poll online about who would you vote for. Ash had taken an early lead. However, Humza was jumping up at an incredible rate.

We sent in a formal and final request for nomination status and encouraged Kate’s team to copy us. They did.

Ash’s partner had spoken to some of his security contacts and they could confirm there was a bot vote rigging The National poll.

At the same time, we checked the visitor log at Parliament and could see some SNP Westminster Press Staff visiting. While SNP HQ would deny any involvement – there was patently a preferred candidate from the random comings and goings. None were ever meeting our team or Kate.

Kate was undergoing a reset. Humza was under siege by the Indian/Muslim councils. Kirk was the story we were being pushed on – we agreed on our line:

“Kirk has worked for the SNP, Plaid Cymru and ALBA – I’ve got him in one day to go from attacking the SNP to fighting for it”

We created a “Where’s Kirky” image gallery – to deploy a series of images of Kirk working for the SNP throughout the years in case we needed to make the point harder. It was a kind of tongue-in-cheek reference to “Where’s Wally”.

The night would be wrapped up by sending messaging to our Ambassador network and focusing on the next days’ media interviews and the first time the team would assemble. We checked in on the online poll at The National and Humza had gained many many thousands of votes.

We cheesily called it #AshvengersAssemble.

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