Whose jobs will the new face of No 10 swallow up next?
Allegra Stratton, the new Downing Street press secretary, will begin broadcasting live from a room in the Cabinet Office next year. The new White House-style briefing will be conducted from a room in No.9 Downing St. which is being soundproofed in preparation.
If the plan is for her not to say anything, then people will soon switch off. Political journalists are used to getting stonewalled or referred back to “our previous comments” in the unglamorous and untelevised lobby, or “huddle”, but that won’t wash when the public start tuning in to live press conferences. There are also difficulties if she does start answering the question. Successive Speakers of the House of Commons have chided various Governments for making big announcements outside of the chamber and this will only increase if Stratton, who’s not an MP, starts making all the big ones from Downing St’s new TV room. Graham Stewart has discussed the potential issues with the idea, pointing out that live briefings have been considered several times since the days of New Labour, but were ultimately rejected.
But there’s perhaps a wider principle here. If Boris Johnson allows a non-ministerial figure to be the public face of the government, is there any reason why she will stay confined just to one room in Downing St? The Prime Minister’s official spokesman takes questions from journalists every day but he doesn’t go on TV and is never named in press reports. Part of the reason why the lobby huddle (currently conducted remotely) is not public, is because the spokesman is not supposed to have a public profile, which would obviously detract from the responsible minister. In No 10’s case, that’s the PM; but for individual departments the same principle holds good. You don’t hear from a named spokesman, you hear from the responsible minister – that’s how our parliamentary system has usually worked, up until now, in terms of its dealing with the fourth estate.
This cannot be the case with Allegra, as otherwise what was the point in hiring such a high profile talent? Why waste her by hiding her?
Since she will soon become a household name, why in principle could she not tour the broadcast studios? Or come with the PM on overseas trips? Or even do the Sunday morning media round currently doled out to an in-favour cabinet member? The broadcasters would know that she will be much better acquainted with Boris Johnson’s thinking than those who are far from No.1o and busy running departments.
This will have wide implications for cabinet government. Going “out to bat” for the PM is a kind of political currency. Members of the government can earn brownie points for doing a broadcast round at a difficult time but it’s also a chance for the ambitious to build name recognition with the public. If Stratton’s new role takes this from ambitious ministers, could we have a situation where the longer you sit in Cabinet the less anybody will have heard of you?
And if the genie leaves No.10 why stop there? Whether running The Spectator or London or even the Foreign Office (arguably the least demanding department in government), Boris Johnson was a heavy delegator. Who better to trust to make the speeches on minor state visits than somebody who knows your mind but cannot take your job?
When asked whether there were plans for her to expand her role beyond the televised Downing St press conferences, Stratton said they were “good questions” but that aside from speaking to journalists on a Wednesday there were currently “no plans to do anything further than the televised briefings that start on January 11th”.
It’s clear that the appointment of a public government spokesperson will change the nature of the executive in ways we haven’t fully appreciated yet. It will be up to Boris Johnson to draw a line as to where Allegra’s responsibilities will end. There can be little doubt that she will soon just be ‘Allegra’, and one of the most well-known people in the country. There seems little chance, given the lack of on the record denials, that we won’t see ever more of her. Why won’t we? If she turns out to be up the job of the televised press conferences, why will a self-denying ordinance stick? If Allegra Stratton succeeds at her day job, expect to see her in studios, at airports beside official planes and everywhere else the PM would rather not be.
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