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3 April 2020

What is the point of the government’s daily press conferences?

The government is trying to do two things at once: spread public messaging and allow public scrutiny. Many MPs think they are failing on both counts.

By George Grylls

There have been 18 of the government’s daily coronavirus press conferences so far. 

Not a moment too soon, Matt Hancock came out of self-isolation yesterday to promise to carry out 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month. But several of the latest offerings have had to rely on junior ministers, whom few beyond Westminster could recognise let alone name. On Sunday it was Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick’s turn. According to YouGov, he is the 229th most famous political figure in the UK. On Wednesday, it was Business Secretary Alok Sharma’s turn. He does not make YouGov’s list at all.

“There are two things the press conference could try to be,” says one seasoned Labour MP. “Either it could be authoritative, giving clear messages – that has singularly failed. Or secondly it could be a way of teasing out information.”

In short, opposition MPs believe the primetime slot is either a public information exercise, or it is a method by which the government can be scrutinised. At the moment it hovers somewhere in-between and, they believe, ends up doing neither very effectively.

“Frankly they’re getting off the hook without answering questions at all,” says one opposition MP. “It really isn’t scrutiny at all.”

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“It’s a deeply frustrating experience watching it as a member of the public, as a journalist or as a politician,” says another.

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You can understand the frustration. To take one example, Sky News’s Beth Rigby asked on Wednesday why it was taking so long for the government’s rhetoric on testing to be matched by an actual, material increase in tests. Here was Sharma’s rather underwhelming response:

“You made particular reference to the antibody test. What I can say on that is that, of course, we are urgently evaluating that test and it is an absolute priority and, of course, this is about making sure that people who have had the test can find out whether they have had the virus and are now immune to it. The Chief Scientific Officer has said that the accuracy of this test is incredibly important, so it’s also important that we get this right, before we launch the test itself. Thank you for that, the next question is from Robert Peston.”

Some MPs think part of the problem with the press conference is that broadcast journalists are tailoring their questions to fit their own news packages, but this seems a little harsh. The more relevant point is surely that journalists have not been allowed a follow-up question to keep MPs on message. Yesterday saw a change in the format whereby Hancock allowed journalists a second question. But the basic fact remains that the minister chooses how many questions he (and it has always been a he) takes and when he takes them.

“I think it’s particularly effective – the government is putting itself in front of the media every day,” rebuts one Tory MP, who notes that scrutiny takes up bandwidth, and insists the government needs to expend all its energy tackling the virus at the moment. “I think it’s more a problem with political editors who are obsessed with old school point-scoring.”

But opposition MPs are making a fair point. There is a need for scrutiny now more than ever and, with parliament in recess, the daily press conference has become one of the best means for achieving this. Drowning in emails from struggling constituents, MPs are currently unable to expose the many loopholes in the government’s hastily drawn plans in the House of Commons. Whilst some select committees have moved online, many would like to see the liaison committee (which brings together the heads of all the select committees) interrogating ministers regularly. The only problem with this is that the liaison committee is yet to be re-established since the election.

But, on the other hand, as well as scrutiny, there is also clearly a need for public messaging, especially as new emergency measures continue to be announced. What was remarkable yesterday was that a major policy u-turn by the government was not communicated in the press conference, but was instead snuck out in a press release late at night. The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan scheme – which was unveiled by Rishi Sunak in a press conference nearly two weeks ago – was amended yesterday so that businesses no longer have to offer up their assets as security in order to get loans. Hiding this information away was less embarrassing for the government, but it was also not really in the public interest.

The daily press conference is a tool, but MPs are concerned that it will struggle to have any impact if it becomes banal.

“I think the current format is actively damaging the government,” says one former minister. “If the public lose confidence in the government’s ability to manage the crisis, then they’ll just ignore the advice.”