How Boris Johnson should overhaul Downing Street – Bernard Ingham

IT used to be a bit of a joke in No 10 in the 1980s that Ministers had only a cursory discussion of the presentation of policies they had just formulated.

How can Boris Johnson get his government back on track?

Press secretaries had to work hard to keep the party reasonably presentable, if not entirely clean.

Now, after the media management excesses of the Blair years, I wonder whether they give it a moment’s thought.

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Otherwise, would Home Secretary Priti Patel ever have been allowed to pay the French another £54m to stem the tide of cross-Channel immigrants when they have a vested interest in dumping them on us?

Boris Johnson's communications strategy is being increasingly called into question.

The public has given the Government a lot of leeway in handling the pandemic.

But the last 15 months are littered with inconsistencies, anomalies and failures and now the pings of Test and Trace have been sent to try us all, from schoolchildren to retailers.

People won’t take much more.

Worse still, this cavalier approach to presentation is as contagious as a Covid variant.

Dominic Cummings during his recent interview with the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg.

We have quangos threatening interference with journalists’ freedom to report instead of going for leakers in breach of contract; proposing a PM’s department incorporating the Treasury; and floating the idea that MPs should get a bigger pay rise than public sector workers.

Are they mad?

Don’t they care what it looks like?

Leeds City Council clearly doesn’t in deciding to examine the colonial connections of Yorkshire parkin and Yorkshire tea. What a commentary on its priorities!

Every day, as I settle down to read the newspapers, I think I have a front seat in the Theatre of the Absurd. Certainly, if I were still No 10 press secretary, I would be ‘doing my nut’ over the damage that the Government is doing to itself.

The extent to which this is due to the malign influence of Dominic Cummings, the PM’s former vindictive chief advisor, is far from clear.

It often looked a mess after he took formal charge of Government communications in the Cabinet Office in July 2019.

It was certainly a poor advert for the bevy of communications chiefs in No 10 who seemed to come and go like Donald Trump’s White House team.

I am the first to recognise that handling the media is more complicated than in my day. This is primarily because of the internet and the manifest damage it can do to society.

It is a grave dereliction of duty on the part of successive governments to have allowed the web to play fast and loose while the established British media are bound by libel and pornography laws.

Instead governments have tried to “manage” the web by employing vastly more on monitoring it and fast rebuttal.

The result is at least six times more people centrally employed than my press office team of eight, including two secretaries and an office manager.

They are manifestly not winning. This begs the question what should be done to improve matters – an extraordinary question for a Government led by a professional journalist.

My first move would be to get rid of the Cabinet Office controllers and return responsibility for presentation to where it belongs: with individual Ministers and their teams. This would remedy Cummings’ constitutional outrage in trying to usurp it.

Second, I would urge the PM to appoint a Cabinet Minister with some clout with responsibility for co-ordinating communication.

I had the pleasure of working with Lord Whitelaw and John Wakeham who both took the matter seriously. That was more than could be said for John Biffen.

Third, I would advocate a Chequers’ weekend for Ministers to discuss the parlous state into which presentation has fallen.

My aim would be to impress on them their prime responsibility for presenting policy and to emphasise the need to avoid leaving the Government looking incompetent.

Check script and anticipate questions should be their watchwords.

Fourth, it is important to justify any policy in announcing it.

This means – and I don’t assume it will be welcomed – all major announcements should be made in the Commons where there can be proper constitutional examination.

That is not to write off media interviews. Every opportunity should be taken to argue the case forcibly and confidently through press, radio and TV.

A Minister worth his salt should be able to cope with the media’s probings. But that means close and thorough preparation.

Are you listening Boris?

In short, after just two years the Government must reform soon or support will ebb away.

It cannot go on apparently taking the voters for granted.

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