THIS week’s political issue is whether No 10 Downing Street is losing its marbles in record time.
Little more than two months since the election, with Boris Johnson facing a monumental post-Brexit challenge, there is talk of a St Valentine’s Day massacre of Ministers which is not exactly the way to heal divisions.
We face a vast spending programme in the March Budget with money we don’t have, even if we tax the rich more, and much virtue signalling in advance of Glasgow’s UN Climate Summit (COP 26) that will no doubt be as useful in combating global warming as the previous 25.
And now, to cap it all, No 10 has put the media’s backs up. This raises the question as to whether Dominic Cummings, the ‘weirdo’ eminence grise Boris has installed in No 10, and his compliant press secretary, Lee Cain, are out of control.
To be fair, living with the media in No 10 is never easy. Nor should it be in a healthy democracy. I had my moments as No 10 press secretary. More than once the Lobby – as political correspondents are collectively known – fearfully telephoned press office to inquire whether we were still on speaking terms.
I joined Margaret Thatcher on the basis that I would play fair with the media if they played fair with me – Adam Boulton of Sky News said as much in his column in The Sunday Times. They were entitled to their opinions. My concern was with the facts of a case and whether their opinions were factually based.
I often got fed up with mowing down invention, conspiracy theory and over-interpretation and, not being blessed with much patience or placid temperament, used to blast away when I could not laugh it off. This made for a turbulent relationship but we were still partying together after 11 years.
This is because a press secretary’s role is to promote an informed media and public on the Government’s policies and measures and to advise Ministers and officials on their presentation. He cannot do that if he pulls up the drawbridge. Both Donald Maitland with Edward Heath, and Joe Haines with Harold Wilson, learned that.
In my time roles were reversed. The Guardian, Independent and Scotsman took their bats home when I refused to change the terms of our engagement. To handicap a “too powerful” Mrs Thatcher, they wanted to quote me freely.
I insisted on observance of the time-honoured rule – no quoting of No 10 guidance unless specifically authorised – to maintain the tradition of Ministers being the front men and press officers backroom boys.
I am the first to admit that information technology has moved on since my day. I did the No 10 job without a mobile phone or a computer. The pandemonium of the anti-social media, as I describe it, has undoubtedly revolutionised (and complicated) communication with the public.
It can justify some of President Trump’s complaints about fake news, even if he tends to dismiss all criticism as bogus. But it emphasises the need regularly to inject authoritative fact into this tower of Babel.
That is best achieved through a reasonable, if occasionally tempestuous, relationship between No 10 and Lobby.
Against this background, what has No 10 just done? First, it has required the Lobby to go to No 10 for briefings in the afternoon as deadlines approach whereas I always went to them in the House of Commons. Editors, perhaps over-sensitively, saw this as damaging democracy. No 10 also frowns on officials lunching with scribes.
All this may seem high handed but it is nothing compared with the vetting of the wheat from the chaff as correspondents, waiting for a briefing, were lined up on either side of the carpet in the No 10 entrance hall. The chaff on the wrong side were told to leave so the lot of them – wheat and chaff – walked out.
This is no way to run a railway. It is frankly arrogant incompetence – control freakery gone mad – that will rebound on the Government.
The Government’s boycott of the BBC’s Today programme and its issuing of the Prime Minister’s Brexit-night address through Netflix, untouched by BBC or ITV’s dirty paws, is more evidence of trouble.
The Government may be justified in seeing the BBC as biased. I don’t watch or listen to much of it any more. But in my experience the BBC has always seen itself as the alternative – and often the better – government.
But why deprive the elected Government of an outlet for its authoritative view? All the more reason to argue your case.
It is time Boris, a journalist to boot, stopped the rot.