Well that was quick. Allegra Stratton, the Number 10 press secretary hired to front on-camera briefings on Boris Johnsons’s behalf, did not get so far as a screen debut as Britain’s equivalent to the high-profile American porte-paroles. Instead, she will become spokeswoman for the COP26 climate change summit this autumn. It is a ringside seat at the intergovernmental shebang of the year but clearly a consolation prize. Stratton has been sidelined from a job which would have made her a national figure and friends described her as “sad and frustrated” that her push to revivify No 10 communications should end up squashed before the first broadcast. It leaves an interesting accountancy question over the cost-benefit of a bespoke, sound-proofed broadcast suite costing some £2.7 million (one insider mischievously suggests the PM pay it back by hosting online Zumba classes in it).
Plotlines and feuds merge in politics and the news that the off-switch had been hit on the televised briefings coincides with the outing in The Sun today (at Boris Johnson’s personal behest) of his old strategy chief Dominic Cummings as the alleged “chatty rat” behind a slew of disclosures about off-the-cuff personal texts from the PM.
Cummings supported the idea of TV broadcasts to circumvent traditional lobby briefings. But the rise of Stratton caused a clash between the two staffers. Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s fiancée and a Tory party comms veteran herself, initially supported Stratton, judging that TV briefings fronted by a woman would help offset the image of a male cabal around Johnson. In truth, it remains largely male because that is the PM’s default setting. The new head of No 10 communications, Jack Doyle, also hails from the reliable pipeline of former Mail newspaper political journalists-turned-comms, after the previous incumbent returned to journalism.
This episode of Boris Johnson’s West Wing clash over presentation and the “et tu, Dom?” moment are a reminder that No 10 is a bit of a chaos zone in the Johnson era. Trusties move in and out of posts and favour at a rate last witnessed in the Trump White House.
As recently as last week Stratton thought she might still prevail and front the briefings. Screen tests had been held and Stratton — a seasoned TV and print journalist — had been working through the task of creating clips for the evening bulletins and social media with a tone relaxed enough to deal with insistent lobby colleagues, but also, as an ally puts it “direct enough to get attention from a busy mum, half watching the news while making the supper”. Not everyone at No 10, including Dan Rosenfield, the PM’s chief of staff, was convinced.
The formal version of the retreat is that the “risk analysis changed” about the gains and pains of the briefings. To which one ally of Stratton quips wryly: “Did it really though?” The consolidation of power from the supporters of “trad” communications (via briefings to the lobby away from the public glare) meant that her plan had few allies.
One veteran of the political lobby says: “It would have been a disaster — because Allegra wanted to make points that would persuade doubters, or clinch an argument. The more you do that, the more oxygen you give to stories the PM needs to close down.” Having to insist in a lobby call recently that Johnson had abided by the Nolan principles of probity in public life when he failed to declare any conflict of interest in his dealings with Jennifer Arcuri, his mistress while mayor, may have been the Waterloo moment. Imagine the repeated denials being interrogated and played out on the evening news — and then the PM being accosted when he next stepped out in public to be asked again about the same story.
So, Boris’s communications tribes ended in a rousing chorus for the status quo. And you might say, why should we care? I always thought that the US model fitted better in US politics, where the President’s availability is far more scanty than a British prime minister. But the Stratton experiment and the rise of yet another male chief spinner is a reminder that the Johnson fiefdom remains overwhelmingly a place where the big battles for power and influence are fought out between the combative blokes and urbane chaps, flanked by loyalist female colleagues deemed vital to the running of Johnson enterprises and yet strangely, never quite in the forefront of them.
Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist and appears tonight on The News Quiz on Radio 4