Barely two months after a landslide election win, Boris Johnson’s government has made clear that one of the first fights it wants to pick is with the media.
On Monday, No 10 invited a select group of journalists to a briefing with government Brexit adviser David Frost, who will lead the UK’s trade negotiations with the EU.
They were accompanied to the meeting by colleagues from a range of outlets who had not been invited, but who, understandably, thought it important that they should also be updated on the UK’s future relationship with its largest trading partner.
In a farcical scene, security guards divided journalists into two groups on opposite sides of a carpet in the Downing Street foyer, before Johnson’s communications director Lee Cain arrived to tell them that: “Those invited to the briefing can stay – everyone else, I’m afraid, will have to leave.”
In an act of solidarity, those who had received an invite walked out with their colleagues.
While select briefings from political advisers are often restricted to friendly journalists, that certain outlets were barred from hearing about government business from a civil servant who is required to remain politically neutral was considered a step too far.
The confrontation marked a new low for relations between the government and the lobby (the group of journalists covering parliament who work in and are granted access to the areas of the Palace of Westminster that are off-limits to the public).
Members of this group, which dates back to the 19th century, attend daily briefings and informal “huddles” outside the House of Commons chamber and have traditionally been bound by rules, such as granting anonymity to party officials who feed them government lines as unnamed sources.
The lobby has long been criticised as a closed shop that fosters groupthink, and some of No 10’s recent confrontations with its journalists were plausibly pitched as attempts to reform its outdated practices.
At the beginning of January, two daily briefings and all ad hoc briefings were moved from parliament to Downing Street, prompting editors of almost all the UK’s major newspapers to sign a letter raising concerns about the move and the lack of consultation beforehand.
While those changes may have seemed relatively mundane, the way the government went about implementing them was an early sign that Cain and Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief special adviser, were itching for a showdown.
“It’s an assault on the lobby generally. Dom and Lee are campaigners, they love to break institutions and mess stuff up,” says one member of the lobby. “They are absolutely demonstrating their authority. This is the peak of their power and they’re very happy to throw it around. It’s a fight they want to win.”
The mass walkout on Monday suggests there is a collective will among the lobby to resist the most egregious attempts to undermine its ability to function. “The political editor unity will hold I think, they’re all very senior journalists who have seen this all before,” says the reporter.
And yet there are also dangers for lobby journalists making too big a show of being affronted. As another member of the lobby points out: “The attempt to divide journalists was outrageous and they were right to walk out, but I think some in the lobby love to grandstand about it and that just plays into the government’s hands – makes us look self-obsessed and grandiose.”
Whether No 10 succeeds in imposing its new approach upon the lobby will in no small part come down to how the battle is perceived in public. Johnson and his advisers will want to pitch themselves as taking on a stuffy establishment, rather than suppressing free speech.
They will take comfort from Donald Trump’s own war with the media, which has shocked and enraged his opponents but energised his base. The US president is famed for attacking the “fake news media” in his speeches, but his administration has also excluded specific reporters from briefings and used denial of access as a political weapon.
Whether consciously or not, Trump has taken advantage of the changing power dynamics brought about by the internet and social media, in which journalists are no longer as vital for getting a message out as they once were.
As December’s general election showed, a Johnson-led Conservative Party is eager to make what could charitably be called “innovative” use of social media to reach voters.
The energetically destructive approach to media relations also bears all the hallmarks of the confrontational style Cummings displayed working at the Department of Education and as director of the Vote Leave campaign.
In the lead-up to the election, Cummings was seen in the lower reporters’ gallery in parliament talking amiably with journalists, criticising the inefficiencies and frustrations of the lobby system and asking how it could be improved.
A few months and an election later, it has become clear that any changes will be offered on No 10’s terms and delivered with disdain and contempt. Cummings is good at identifying real problems and inefficiencies, but his approach to fixing them relies on maximum aggression.
That may backfire. Instead of being cowed by the assault, the lobby’s members have, for now, held firm, and the narrative emerging this week makes the government look both petty and partisan, undermining claims it is merely trying to update an archaic system.
Declaring warfare openly on the media so early in Johnson’s premiership may end up looking like a tactical misstep.