Scrapping White House-style press briefings after spending £2.6m is totally on brand for this government

James Moore
·3-min read
<p>Boris Johnson in the No 9 briefing room</p> (Getty Images)

Boris Johnson in the No 9 briefing room

(Getty Images)

Dominic Cummings, eh. He might be a good template for producers to work on for the next big slasher movie villain, but at least he had a plan. Horrible it may have been, but a plan nonetheless.

Without him, his old mucker Boris Johnson doesn’t even have the “PL” in plan.

Take the much-ballyhooed media briefing room, in which former BBC journalist Allegra Stratton was supposed to become this country’s incarnation of Jen Psaki (who does the job for Joe Biden).

To create Allegra’s palace, the government poured £2.6m into buying the biggest flags its procurement team could find, some distressed wood panelling, and a load of carpet like stuff Dulux would probably label as “mucky blue” on a paint chart.

The designer shabbiness of the end result could hardly be further from the slick, polished, professional-looking place where Psaki appears.

But the construction did represent an history of sorts and a nice change from all those anonymous briefings. It now appears that they’re going to be with us for the foreseeable future.

It took a while but some bright spark in the government’s communications apparatus finally saw the enormous flaw in the foundations of the new construction: What if one of the journalists were to ask awkward questions about whatever mess Boris Johnson got himself into next?

When you look at the the White House press corps, with a couple of exceptions (looking at you Fox News) they’re a fairly serious bunch, largely preoccupied with current affairs and weighty issues of policy. Seemingly more interested in public life, rather than private life.

It’s different here. Here the government was running a greater risk of one of the tabloids questioning Stratton on the subject of the prime minister’s private matters (if they believe it in the public interest) in the middle of a live broadcast. Thus guaranteeing the embarrassing story on telly, and a multitude of social media mentions to boot. Just imagining the expression on Stratton’s face will have had the meme-makers drooling.

It appears that the more advisors thought about the sort of hostile questions thrown about by Britain’s rambunctious media, which can easily include usually supportive outlets, like the Daily Mail asking Cummings to explain his lockdown-breaking ways during a televised event, the more they got cold feet.

So the plans were scrapped. Stratton is off to head up communications for the Cop26 climate conference, which is a big deal but hardly in the same ballpark as being the face of the government. She’s on more than £100,000 for spinning that, but she won’t have to make do on the salary of three or four nurses for long if she doesn’t want to. The headhunters will be beating a path to her door with private sector offers worth several times that.

As for the briefing room? We’re told ministers will now use it to appear on an ad hoc basis, so they can bask in the glow of those massive union flags whenever the 24-hour news channels are struggling to pad out their schedules. Maybe the invisible Rishi Sunak will appear to announce something after he’s exhausted his reserves of Greensill lobbying scandal vanishing cream? Perhaps, when the government has formulated a response to the European Super League fiasco, Oliver Dowden will again be able to pretend he cares about football.

But quite why £2.6m was needed to make Ollie look relevant or to restore some of Rishi’s faded allure is understandably beyond the people looking at the crumbling schools they take their kids to or the hospital waiting lists they’re on.

It’s no wonder Tory MPs have taken to referring to the briefing suite as a “blue elephant”. True, the cost makes it look like one of those extinct dwarf varieties when compared to the truckloads of cash tipped down the toilet of test and trace. But it’s still very visible and it’s trumpeting quite loudly.

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