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Downing Street may be biting off more than it can chew with its new press briefings

Moving to a daily televised briefing will have bigger implications across government than is perhaps realised. 

By Stephen Bush

The British government will scrap the afternoon briefing for members of the parliamentary press gallery, drastically reduce the number of government press officers and bring in a televised afternoon briefing, Laura Hughes has revealed in the FT.

Is this a good idea? Well, there are upsides and downsides. In practice, one upside of the existing lobby system is any reporter with a lobby pass can ask a question – from current affairs magazines to local newspapers to the big behemoths like the BBC and Sky. While a wide range of outlets have been able to ask questions at the government’s coronavirus briefings, because the press conferences are time-limited the practical day-to-day effect is to reduce the amount of questions that can be asked on any given day. (Jonathan Walker, the political editor of the Birmingham Post and Mail and the Newcastle Chronicle and Journal has done a good short thread on this issue.)

So a lot depends on whether these briefings will be similarly time-limited, as the government’s coronavirus briefings were. Without wishing to be unduly cynical, I assume they will be, due to both the government’s desire to avoid tricky questions and broadcasters’ desire to cut away once their reporters have asked their questions.

[see also: The government is looking for someone to blame for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis]

Another inevitable change concerns the nature of the questions. Lobby questions can be dull-and-important: for example, the Westminster correspondent of a trade publication might have a series of queries about a specific regulation, or indeed any journalist might have technical questions. Those asked on air will be more combative, and become about devising “gotcha” questions or indeed just pointed ones. Is that better or worse for scrutiny? It depends on your perspective. I don’t think it’s been all that helpful for anyone that British finance ministers have been repeatedly asked on air if we are in a recession yet (the answer is “yes, of course”) rather than why the self-employed have had such a patchy set of income support measures. Losing dull-and-important may also mean that the government avoids technical questions about genuine scandals.

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But even a time-limited broadcast briefing comes with considerable downsides for the government as well.

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There’s an interesting division when you ask politicians about abandoning daily on-the-record coronavirus briefings. British Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians and their staff thought it was a big mistake: the government has abandoned an opportunity to “set the narrative” with big set-piece announcements that drown out the other side and that can act as distractions or firebreaks for bad news stories. Scottish Conservatives, at least the one I’ve talked to, tend to agree, as do SNP Westminster staffers and less experienced SNP MPs.

That’s the benefit the government gains from these televised briefings – on a bad day, the government’s TV broadcaster can go and “make news” at the daily briefing, which will then lead the six and the ten o’clock news and the bulletins on music radio. This is one reason why Robbie Gibb, Theresa May’s communications director from 2017-19, would often do “big” government statements from outside Downing Street on the day of big defeats, as it meant that the six o’clock news would be dominated by speculation about the contents of the statement rather than the details of the defeat, while the ten o’clock news would cover the content.

The reality of British media consumption is that if you have a good strategy for the BBC, our dominant media outlet, you don’t need to worry that much about anything else. So the benefit of these daily statements for the government is clear.

But there is a major drawback. Because while opposition politicians at Westminster thought scrapping the coronavirus briefings was a mistake, Conservatives and civil servants did not: and neither did Labour politicians working in the Welsh government, SNP politicians at Holyrood and the more senior SNP MPs at Westminster.

Daily press conferences, one Welsh Labour figure told me, are “a disastrous nightmare”, as the machinery of at least one government department becomes dominated for at least a week by the task of doing the press conference. The paralysis spreads to the rest of government, because a press conference by the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson could equally have questions about the parlous state of British arts.

Those politicians with experience of being in office thought that the weekly questions to the Prime Minister and First Ministers struck the right balance: the main role of the head of government is to make sure that their departmental ministers are delivering government policy and the structure of the weekly questions – at which the Prime or First Minister can be asked any question on any topic –means they have to be on top of pretty much the whole of government policy.

[see also: What we learned from this week’s PMQs]

The reality is that if you have a televised briefing every day there will be a greater public focus on what is said in them, and that will mean that some of the energy-sapping costs of the daily coronavirus briefings will become a regular feature. “Can I get back to you on that?” can be a regular refrain in an off-the-record briefing in a way it can’t on air: at least not without the risk of making the government look incompetent and/or shifty.

That may be in part the intention: just as Margaret Thatcher – who, as Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton explain in their history of PMQs, in many ways invented the modern Prime Minister’s Questions – used PMQs to increase the power of Downing Street over the departments, Boris Johnson may hope that this change allows him to increase the dominance of his No 10 over the rest of the government. 

The trouble is, Downing Street is already incredibly dominant over the departments and it is not clear what in practice further dominance means, other than further delays in sign-off (already a repeated structural problem under this government). People are making a comparison with the White House’s daily briefings. It is worth remembering that an American president has less operational responsibility than a British prime minister: their powers are more limited and vast swathes of responsibility are reserved to state governments. The range of issues that Downing Street has to be across on any given day is a lot, lot broader than what the White House (which in any case has more staff) has to cover. 

I think the government is wildly underestimating how much energy it may find these new briefings sap from the machinery of government – and how overburdened their changes are ultimately going to make Downing Street, which is already too small for the responsibilities it has now.