This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
There’s nothing Westminster journalists like more than a process story that potentially involves one of their own. This week the Conservatives advertised for a new No 10 spokesperson, who will host a live, televised daily briefing. We’re all being invited to apply for a job which carries a six figure salary and will turn the successful candidate into one of the most recognisable faces in the country. What’s not to like? Quite a lot, actually.
No one in their right mind, and certainly no one at the top of their game, would apply for this job given the conditions they would have to operate under. It is the ultimate poisoned chalice – and I say that as someone who’s being quoted as one of the favourites to land it. If you’re of a betting persuasion I’d advise you to save your money. The advantage of being 58 years old is that I have enough self-knowledge to know that I’d both hate it and, perhaps more importantly, be useless at it.
So why is No 10 breaking decades of parliamentary lobby tradition and insisting on these briefings being on the record? Simples. It fits into their narrative of going over the heads of political journalists and straight into people’s living rooms. That’s the reason the Prime Minister is utilising social media, especially Facebook, to reach voters directly, without the filter of so many tiresome political interviewers. Although he is still doing some interviews, the audiences for his Facebook homilies and Question Time sessions are massive.
No 10 also found that their daily coronavirus press conferences turned many people against some of our leading political journalists because of some of the asinine and “gotcha” type questions they repeatedly asked. They’ve seen how the White House uses its daily briefings and they want a piece of the action.
It remains to be seen whether it is possible to overcome negative headlines just by employing a flashy spokesperson with the gift of the gab and the ability to argue that black is white. If whoever is chosen is perceived as being so on message as to be wired into the PM’s brain then it will just reemphasise the main criticism the Government faces – that it’s too often duplicitous and casual with the truth.
I suspect No 10 has decided who they want to appoint and that an offer has already been made. The advert and application process is almost certainly a charade – something that has to be gone through for propriety’s sake.
Allegra Stratton is the favourite, not least because of her experience on Newsnight, ITV News and Peston. Currently a civil servant, she’s working as director of communications for the Chancellor Rishi Sunak. But would she want to compromise herself by taking a job, which, given it’s being advertised by the Conservative Party and not through the civil service, is bound to entail a certain amount of politicking? She’s not the only one facing this question. Impartiality rules would make it tricky for working broadcasters on many networks to go back to their old jobs.
The other issue for candidates is how much access to the Prime Minister they will have. A successful spokesperson is invariably in the room when the key decisions are made. They need to know the mind of the Prime Minister, rather than have it filtered for them through Dominic Cummings. The successful applicant should be on a par with Cummings, not his supplicant. Creative tension would inevitably follow, but that’s for the Prime Minister to manage.
Real trouble will arise if the spokesperson becomes too successful and a star in their own right, thus overshadowing the very man who hired them in the first place and the person they are trying to convince us is perfect in every conceivable way.
Finally we come to the salary. Most front-of-house broadcasters are paid many times the £100,000 a year said to be on offer. While the privilege to serve is always a consideration, it’s difficult to imagine a household name abandoning a career that has taken years to build for a job which will pay less, absorb them 24/7, and involve daily ritual humiliation.
As the saying goes, good luck with that!