The Morning Briefing is a Westminster institution for the smartphone age. Photo: Getty
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My year as Benedict Brogan’s “little slave”

Now that Benedict Brogan has departed the Telegraph, Tim Wigmore – who used to help write his Morning Briefing email – remembers how it used to come together.

Few places do tradition like Westminster. For the past three years, politicos had a new ritual. Just before 8.30am – and it had to be just before, to arrive in time for the first Downing Street meeting of the day – Benedict Brogan’s Morning Briefing would land in in-boxes.

When the email began, it was circulated to 500 of Benedict’s political contacts. By the time he left the Daily Telegraph on 18 June, the number of subscribers had grown to 25,000. Yet the email’s importance lay in who read it: there were 50 subscribers in No 10 alone.

If the impression was of a well-oiled machine, the truth was very different. For a year from last May, I worked with Benedict on his briefing. To the BBC’s Daily Politics show, which did a feature on the email, I was his “little slave”. Every morning presented a battle against capricious alarm clocks, sleep deprivation, dodgy phone signal and lousy IT software.

My day would begin at 5am, as I stumbled out of bed, and seven minutes later – I learned to savour every possible minute of sleep – into a cab bound for the Telegraph’s offices in Victoria. I was met by a bundle of morning papers, which passed for company in an otherwise deserted office.

A little after 6am came my first human contact when Benedict and I discussed, usually by email, the most important stories of the day. While waiting for him to punch out the top items on his BlackBerry as he took his daughter to school on the number 344 bus, I wrote the smaller news items, in between wrestling with the software’s infuriating penchant for making all the text bold.

As my stint on the briefing progressed, I honed my ability to mimic Benedict’s style, coming to treasure his idiosyncrasies – Tony Blair was always “Mr Tony”, Ed Miliband was “Mili E” – as my own. We even had the same taste in holidays: we both went to Hvar in August, though, mercifully, not at the same time.

Above all, I learned never to be surprised when something went wrong. Simply waking up was the first obstacle. On several occasions when my alarm clock failed, there might never have been a briefing had it not been for the cab driver ringing the doorbell. (My mum was less grateful for his persistence.)

Even Benedict was not immune to finding the hours a challenge. One morning during the Liberal Democrat conference, I didn’t hear from him until almost 8am; he confessed to having had a whisky too many. But because he had written a column for the day’s paper I was well briefed on his thoughts.

Unreliable phone signal, in places from Afghanistan to the south of France, was another challenge posed by Benedict’s onerous schedule. Particularly problematic was his trip to China with George Osborne, when he feared (correctly, it turned out) that his computer had been bugged. Not that this stopped him filing despatches by BlackBerry.

It was gratifying to learn that our efforts were noticed. Ed Miliband’s leading adviser, Stewart Wood, was among those most inclined to take issue with the email’s wording, frequently voicing his displeasure within minutes of receiving the briefing. Mili E may claim that he doesn’t follow the day-to-day news but his team does. The daily emails and tweets from politicians looking to influence the briefing affirmed its clout.

Yet it was more than just a respected email. As the outpouring of thanks to Benedict on Twitter from across the political spectrum showed, his Morning Briefing (now ably produced by Stephen Bush) was a Westminster institution for the smartphone age.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.