It’s been another huge political week. The Brexit negotiations nearly collapsed, a delegation of scores of Tories demanded reassurances from their leader and the Queen was dragged into politics again in recent days.
Much of the damage has been done after anonymous “Number 10 source” briefings, some or all of which are thought to have emanated from Boris Johnson’s controversial chief of staff, Dominic Cummings.
These briefings included a lurid account of a phone call with Angela Merkel, a 700-word musing on a cornered government’s strategy, and numerous questionable schemes to circumvent the Benn Act law to block a no-deal Brexit, and have sparked a debate about whether Westminster journalists should be quoting anonymous sources at all.
- OPINION: Anonymous Number Ten Briefings Do The Public A Disservice. Journalists Should Stop Reporting Them
Former Number 10 spin doctors told HuffPost UK that “sources briefings” have served a purpose going back decades, whether to add colour to Gordon Brown’s “taciturn” public offerings, to flesh out a minister’s private thinking, or to respond to an attack story without giving it credence.
But some agree that Johnson’s Downing Street has overstepped the line, accusing Cummings of “smoking his own dope” and “playing up to the Benedict Cumberbatch character”, and even acting like Donald Trump to confuse opponents.
Mensheviks v Bolsheviks
Many have speculated that the master campaigner Cummings is focused on uniting the Leave vote in an upcoming election, while the rest of the Number 10 machine is working on getting a Brexit deal done.
But Stewart Wood, who advised Gordon Brown and lived through the Downing Street power struggles of the Blair years, suggests something more simply is at play: Cummings and Vote Leave allies are trying to kill off any chance of Johnson compromising with the EU.
“I think a bit of it is Cummings has smoked his own dope a bit and he’s a bit of a brand now, and he’s sort of playing up to the Benedict Cumberbatch character a bit,” he says.
But he suggests “there is a massive battle going on inside Number 10 and the cabinet about whether to play ball with an EU that is willing to compromise by offering Northern Ireland to stay in the customs union, or not”.
“I think Cummings is going ballistic to basically push Boris into a position where he cannot give in to the Mensheviks against the Bolsheviks in that position.
“I think he is using the media for an internal battle within the Boris Johnson team.”
Wood was commenting after two anonymous briefings declared the prospects of a Brexit agreement were dead thanks to EU intransigence. One also suggested the Tories would fight the next election on a no deal platform. They both sparked fury in Brussels and among the party’s MPs in Westminster.
“I think that’s the problem with Cummings, he’s sort of a Trotskyite within government fighting a battle for that wing of the Johnson soul against everyone else. He feels like he’s the only one keeping the faith,” Wood says.
“It may be that Cummings feels there is a kind of spinelessness emerging and and instinct for a deal, whether that’s the negotiating team or the cabinet or Boris or someone else.
“Someone who acts in that desperate a way clearly is worried about losing. The interesting thing is what has made him feel that?”
It is almost being used as a way to discombobulate rivals
One former Tory Number 10 insider, who ironically spoke on condition of anonymity, also sees a problem with trying to send out two messages at once when all of them are heard in Brussels, as well as target Leave voters.
“I think there’s a term in literary theory called ‘death of the author’ - that at the moment of publication the author’s grip and governance of the meaning of the things he or she has written ceases.”
Another Tory ex-spin doctor meanwhile sees Cummings as a “lightning rod” to deflect criticism away from Johnson as he employs “combative” Vote Leave tactics to push through Brexit.
“They don’t take a knife to a gunfight, no stone is unturned, nothing is off limits,” the insider says.
“That playbook is being somewhat mimicked, replicated.”
Sean Kemp, a former special adviser for Nick Clegg in Downing Street, wonders whether Downing Street agreed with Wood that Cummings might simply be “showing off”. But Downing Street may also be trying to mask the government’s real intentions.
“There are some people in Number 10 who are quite enjoying chucking a new idea out there every day,” he says.
“Some of it might be true, some of it might not be true, it is almost being used as a way to discombobulate rivals. It makes it hard to work out what the actual thinking is.”
He goes on: “These briefings are the equivalent of Trump tweets - this chaff that’s thrown out there, and you can’t tell if they are really that crazy, and what’s a distraction and what’s real and what’s there to wind you up and what actually might be an insight into their thinking. It sort of serves a similar purpose.”
So why do anonymous briefings even exist?
Kemp explains that briefings often “help a journalist understand where you are coming from so they can write an informed piece”.
Often a source quote is included because “for either reasons of time or good politics, a politician isn’t going to have their name attached to it”.
It also allows for the addition of interesting colour, or a more candid view to be expressed.
“The truth is if you didn’t allow that kind of flex you would end up with a lot of very boring stories,” he said.
The Tory ex-spin doctor meanwhile said they would use source quotes to deny negative stories without giving them the weight of an official Downing Street response.
At other points it could be to “float certain things, prospective ideas” - a good idea for a government balancing competing interests in parliament and the electorate. And the practice has been going on for decades.
Wood says: “The idea that advisers providing off the record clarification, views, opinion, that’s part of the game and I think it’s been there 40 years or so.”
So what’s different now?
The mischievous use of anonymous off-the-record briefings is nothing new either.
Kemp recalls being described as a Number 10 source in the coalition years and people would think it was a Tory rather than a Lib Dem.
“You could say ‘Lib Dem source’ but that was less interesting, so you could have a bit of fun with that at times.
“I remember giving an insulting quote about Osborne and being quoted as a government source.
“And then seeing people on Twitter wondering which Tory stuck the knife in - it was a Lib Dem. But that was on the edges.”
Wood witnessed the days of Tony Blair’s notorious chief spinner Alistair Campbell, and Brown’s equally tough aides Damian McBride and Charlie Whelan.
But they never allowed or wanted their lengthy diatribes and ruminations to be published wholesale.
A fascinating Number 10 take on the state of the Brexit talks. In short, they expect the negotiations to end in failure this week, ‘those who think Merkel will help us are deluded, and Downing Street’s view on why Leo Varadkar’s calculations are wrong https://t.co/Yp92XCKPFu— James Forsyth (@JGForsyth) October 7, 2019
“Alistair and Damian and Charlie Whelan, these characters from the Labour era, definitely had their long rants and long chats and long opinion thought threads with journalists but it was in order to try and get the journalist to be more sympathetic to their view rather than telling them to get their pen out and put it down on a piece of paper,” he says.
Kemp agrees: “It’s different in terms of volume, detail and what is being explicitly quoted.
“All these various schemes are quite detailed and get into policy and get into the constitution.
“That has always happened to an extent but the frequency with which a single source story is being thrown out there with detail on is happening a lot.
“But you’d be naive to think it never happened before.”
Some Westminster journalists have taken flak for using the briefings.
But Kemp sympathises: “Reporters have no option to report what they have been told, but will the journalists eventually ask for a bit more?
“There will always be a market for someone getting a phone call from Number 10 and running an exclusive - because that one might be the actual scoop. They are not all bollocks.”