Seven Rules for Handling Political Conflict

Seven Rules for Handling Political Conflict

Politics is an adversarial profession. The whole essence of debate is conflict between two or more points of view. Cases are made with passion and often the winner takes all. Social media allows the conflict to be played out in real time. It is very tempting to respond immediately in the hope of brutally crushing an opponent but this can be unwise and you will have plenty of time for regrets.


A clear head and understanding of the situation will give you the option of a better response. Avoid the temptation to just get stuck in.


Having paused to collect your thoughts and emotions it is time to consider the situation. Why are you having this conflict in the first place? What do you hope to gain from it? Is your opponent preventing you achieving an objective?

If so, why is the objective important? Will achieving it get you power, money, recognition, position or the satisfaction of achieving something for yourself or others?

Or perhaps there is no objective and you are just fighting for the sake of it. It is good to be aware if this is the case, before you proceed. Some people go through life continually looking for fights – they are best avoided.


Discretion is often the better part of valour. With a clear understanding of your objective you can decide if it is worth the time, energy and cost of the likely battle. So save yourself the effort if the game isn’t worth the candle.

Of course I have known politicians who gladly pick fights at every opportunity. It is a strategy that raises their profile and builds a following – but it also builds a cadre of aggrieved people seeking revenge. In politics you will make enough enemies without adding to them with gratuitous conflict. Eventually you will stumble – everybody does – and you want people gathering around to help you to your feet, not to stick their own knives in. Julius Caesar is probably the most famous leader to learn this lesson the hard way.

And as you walk away you can take some comfort in the knowledge that your opponent has revealed themselves over something so insignificant. You are forewarned for future conflicts when the stakes are higher.


So you need to achieve the objective? Fine, but why not do it a different way? Often you can have it without a fight if you can grasp the bigger picture.

In the late 2000s Boris Johnson had risen to become a shadow minister and MP for the safe seat of Henley. He wanted more but David Cameron wasn’t prepared to promote him to full shadow cabinet status. Boris adopted a circuitous route around this intractable obstacle, becoming Mayor of London before returning to Parliament in triumph. The rest is history.


If there is no conflict free option, can you get something similar without a fight. This is easier to do if you have defined what you are actually seeking. You may find there are other ways to achieve the same basic result.

Another politician who was frustrated by lack of preferment was Buckingham MP John Bercow. After a short stint as a shadow minister it became clear to him that personality conflict with the Conservative Leadership meant he would progress no further. At Westminster there are other ways to progress and Bercow managed to charm MPs from all parties on his way to becoming a controversial but long serving Speaker of The House.


Senior managers and consultants will often advise negotiation as a first step in resolving conflict. That’s easy for them to recommend because they won’t be making the concessions. For that reason I leave this option to a later stage.

But be careful. Successful negotiation requires detailed planning. You need to understand what the other side wants and what you are prepared to give up. At this point it is useful to seek the advice of other people who may be aware of factors you haven’t taken into account.

The most famous political negotiation took place in the Granita restaurant in Islington in the 90s between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Brown agreed to let Blair run for the Labour leadership without opposing him and again, the rest is history.

Arguably Brown got the worst of that bargain – somebody usually does.


So we come right down to the line. You can’t avoid the conflict or negotiate your way out of it. The only option is to fight and because it is important, the only option is to Win. It’s time to Go Big or Go Home.

You need to have a detailed knowledge of your opponent – what are their strengths? What are their weaknesses?

And it’s No Holds Barred until hostilities are over.

But always try to leave a way out for the other person. They need to be able to walk away without losing too much face even though they lost the battle. That way you won’t leave foes behind who might give you trouble in future.

Managing your approach to Conflict is an important element of political goal setting and long term planning. I can offer individual advice so do get in touch if a neutral and objective point of view will help.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]