You’d be forgiven for thinking the fifth series of The Thick Of It had just aired. In what stands out as a spectacular comms failure – even for a government that seems to conduct all PR via the foot-in-mouth approach – Downing Street has today been forced to deny that the Prime Minister is launching a defamation lawsuit against the New European.
The row began with a scurrilous scoop in the magazine’s latest issue, claiming that Boris Johnson “told a room full of Telegraph journalists he was experiencing ‘buyer’s remorse’ over married life with Carrie Symonds”. Ouch.
According to New European editor-in-chief Matt Kelly, someone from the PM’s press office (later identified as most likely to be Downing Street director of communications Jack Doyle, or at the very least someone with access to his mobile phone) called late on Thursday night (18 November) “announcing that the story was untrue, defamatory, and that the Prime Minister is taking legal action against the newspaper”. A subsequent text, Kelly says, insisted that, “The Prime Minister did not make this remark. The allegation is untrue and defamatory.”
One can picture Kelly responding in the style of hard-bitten newspaper hacks of old: “see you in court”. Or perhaps even referring the caller to the reply given in Arkell v Pressdram.
Alas, we probably won’t get the spectacle of Telegraph journalists testifying under oath as to what they did or didn’t hear the PM say about the state of his current marriage. No 10 denied the story to Press Gazette this morning, saying “the threat of legal action was untrue, as was the original comment reported”.
Kelly, for his part, has gallantly published a statement, in which he recounts the bizarre incidents of the past 18 hours, points out he has the texts to prove it, and concludes “I now understand Downing Street denies they threatened legal action, to which all I can say is I stand by our story, and our story about the story.”
One can only imagine how many people who are not regular readers of the New European have now heard about the Prime Minister’s alleged marital troubles, thanks to the work of his zealous press team and the wonders of the Streisand Effect.
It’s almost as if they felt that the story was so good, merely having the PM tell a room full of journalists wasn’t doing it justice.