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The dangers of No.10’s attempt to take back control of government communications

The interesting move is less the daily press conference than managing government communications from the Cabinet Office

Every revolutionary’s handbook makes clear the first move is to take control of the airwaves. Jill Rutter argues that the interesting move is less the daily press conference than managing government communications from the Cabinet Office

We are about to have our own equivalent of Scaramucci, Spicer or indeed CJ Cregg. The prime minister is to recruit a high-profile broadcaster (name game starts here) to host a daily, on-the-record, press conference. This is designed to build on what No.10 views as the success of, and public appetite for, the daily Covid-19 press conference. It will allow the government to get its message over direct to viewers at home, not via the newspapers. Journalists will ask questions – but No.10 may have noted that the public have been irritated with “gotcha” questions at the height of the crisis. This won’t replace the daily morning off the record lobby briefing – at least for now.

There is a lot to like in the new model. It is more transparent – the final move away from the ultra-secretive lobby briefings of old. It might expose a government that shies away from scrutiny to more forensic questioning than Keir Starmer, with the luxury of six questions at PMQs, can manage on his own. It would be even better if those same journalists blocked off “anonymous briefings” by insisting that the government puts everything on the record – at least it will allow for rapid public confirmation or denial.

The details will matter. How long will the press conferences last? Who will be chosen to ask the questions? How many follow-up questions will each journalist be granted? Will No.10 engage or obfuscate when faced with difficult questions? And, crucially, will No.10 repeat its attempt to exclude those who shine too big a torch on government shortcomings?

A briefing system for a presidency, or a crisis, does not fit comfortably in our system

This is an approach that has been tried and tested elsewhere, but it is an awkward fit in our system. It works in the US where it is very much a case of the president, and the rest. The UK has a cabinet system of government. The daily televised spokesperson will rapidly become a well-known figure while much of the cabinet will remain Pointless answers on the daily quiz. Over time, this might displace PMQs as the political show of the week.

The spokesperson will be answering questions across the cabinet’s range of responsibilities. This won’t be easy. Unnamed spokespeople for No.10 have occasionally blundered by answering a question where they don’t understand the nuance (most notoriously when Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary torpedoed the pound), and we have seen how the prime minister was caught out by the detail at the Liaison Committee. The new No.10 broadcast spokesperson, who may not have experience of government, will need to be across the detail on a daily basis.

The more important announcement is the centralisation of government communications

The first of the new televised No.10 press conferences will be a big moment, but it could well be a temporary fixture if it becomes too embarrassing or is a ratings flop. But the far more significant change is the shake-up of government comms, which would see No.10 tighten its grip on the entire machine. The last time this happened was when New Labour came to power in 1997 and Alastair Campbell, as Tony Blair’s director of communications, culled a lot of existing government information officers, brought in a new faces, professionalised the operation and hauled processes into the late 20th century.

The new plan is to bring all government communications under the joint control of the prime minister’s new No.10 permanent secretary, Simon Case, and his director of communications, Lee Cain. Departmental comms teams will be stripped back to a maximum of 30 staff and will report into four new directors general in the Cabinet Office. The approach may work for some of the smaller departments but others, such as the Department of Health, can be dealing with a half a dozen front page stories on daily basis. Others have complicated lists of stakeholders and specialist outlets. No.10 may not want to be worrying about Farming Today – but it matters to Defra and its constituency.

While departments need to clear even moderately significant announcements with No.10, with Campbell famously installing a ‘grid’ to co-ordinate all government media activity, directors of communications have always worked to their secretaries of state. That will now change, with a new system run by No.10.

This might also cut out any role for the permanent secretary in challenging the propriety of the actions of the communications teams – which is an important (though weakening) bulwark against the overpoliticisation of government communications. We are not told where the budget for communications will sit, who will be the Accounting Officer and who manages whom.

Centralising government communications could detach it from government policies

Perhaps the biggest risk though is that communications becomes more detached from policy making and implementation. The new comms teams will, we are told, focus on rebuttal – but there is a lot more to government communications than slapping down bad stories. It involves informing the public, running campaign, and explaining how services work.

It used to be that comms teams were handed a fully developed policy with no prior involvement. This government’s big flaw has been the reverse – announcement after announcement with no plan to deliver.

Frustration in No.10 at the lack of control over government communications is not new, but this approach would take control to a new level – and far beyond the effect of the New Labour grid. Complete control is feasible for the short duration of a campaign, but can it cope with the huge task of governing? Or is the government going to learn, yet again, that campaigning is not governing?

Johnson government
Institute for Government

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