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25 September 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:44am

Thomas Cook – not Boris Johnson – rescued the Labour Party conference

“These other brands are just as important to people’s lives as the public institutions.”

By Anoosh Chakelian

As Labour conference opened, Sunday’s front pages didn’t look good for Jeremy Corbyn.

The Independent splashed on a “stitch-up” to block the party backing Remain, while the Observer had Labour plunging into “Brexit chaos”. The Sunday Telegraph led on “Hard left plans for life after Corbyn”, and the Sunday Mirror had “Labour Party at war” following the move to oust deputy leader Tom Watson. The Sunday Times had the story of key aide Andrew Fisher’s departure and criticism of the leadership.

It looked like Labour’s annual gathering was going to be overshadowed by its infighting – characterised yet again by negative coverage distracting from policy announcements.

By Monday the situation in the papers wasn’t much better; many of the front pages were still leading on Labour’s Brexit rift.

However, something else was already sucking attention from the nitty-gritty details of conference motions. The plight of Thomas Cook, a British institution and the world’s oldest travel company, had featured prominently in the papers since Saturday. Although its actual collapse came too late for Monday’s papers, stories of stranded holidaymakers and the ensuing row over whether the government should bail out the company featured heavily.

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This meant the confrontation between Corbyn and Remainers on the conference floor – the most divisive policy row of Labour’s conference, with the gravest implications for a coming election – was second-place in most papers to Thomas Cook the next day. The Mirror, Express and Mail splashed on “Thomas Cook fat cats”, as did the Times in other words (“travel firm bosses’ pay”), and the Metro led on the “repatriation” effort (“The Great British Take-Off”).

Couple that with extensive broadcast coverage of angry Brits on holiday and devastated employees – a perfect news story for TV journalists, with lots of vox-pop and visual opportunities – and Labour’s clash over Brexit, which resulted in its controversial neutral stance, was hardly the biggest news.

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“Luckily it hasn’t really been reported that widely,” said one Labour MP concerned about another disputed policy, a motion to abolish private schools, noting it had only made the Times’ front page that day. “This Thomas Cook stuff’s been all over Sky instead.”

Thomas Cook’s collapse also adds to the sense that institutions in this country are withering. With the high street in decline, people have watched beloved shops in their town centres melt away. This has the most immediate impact on our day-to-day lives. Not only are our weekly shops changing (and, with rising inflation, becoming less affordable), but our yearly foreign holidays are becoming fraught with risk (and again, with the weaker pound, less affordable).

When the institutions that shape our daily lives are under threat, the government is likely to suffer from that sense of unease – even if they’re private rather than state services.

“The truth of the matter of is, these brands impact on people’s lives in a way that many other institutions which traditionally got looked at might not,” says Daniel Pearl, a factual TV commissioner at Channel 5, who has been in flagship news programming for over two decades, including as deputy head of news and current affairs at Channel 4 and BBC Panorama deputy editor.

He has found an increasing appetite for programmes holding British high street brands and businesses to account recently, which I explored in-depth earlier this month.

“Traditionally, you might do a documentary about a council, or social services, or the prisons, or police, and all those things are still really important and interesting. But I think there’s a recognition now that these brands are the institutions in people’s lives in a way that people find interesting,” he observes.

“At a time when we talk about politics a lot, and I look after lots of politics programmes, these other brands are just as important to people’s lives as the public institutions.”

Not only did the immediate Thomas Cook story take the heat off Labour’s problems – but stories like its collapse could be exploited by the opposition come a general election.