One of the strange features of journalistic life is that you are more likely to meet people who work for publications you disagree with. With some honourable exceptions, the default way that BBC producers cover knotty issues is to pick one journalist from a left-leaning publication, another from a right-wing one and let them have a row. (The actual politics of the journalists are wholly secondary, and the politics of their publications seem to have been decided in 1970, never to be revised.)
There are many problems with this approach, not least that there simply aren’t two sides to every story. Take the row over Dominic Cummings’s lockdown breach: everyone involved, including Cummings himself, agreed that the row was disastrously managed and hurt the government. At the time, only an eccentric few thought No 10 had handled it well. Far from making for good television, the “heated debates” about the political repercussions of the Cumming scandal dissolved into polite agreement.
Before Covid-19, journalists would talk to one another in the green room before going on air, to make sure each left something for the other person to say. Inevitably, friendships were formed as a result.
The cross-party nature of these friendships explains why newly elected MPs get the commentariat upset when they suggest they have no interest in – or indeed are actively opposed to – forming friendships across the political divide.
Such claims are self-evidently bogus. Considering the various ways we make friends – book clubs, antenatal classes, the local pub, amateur brass bands, tenants’ associations, football matches, workplaces – none of us can honestly claim to have avoided friendship with supporters of other parties. Press any Labour MP who declares not to have any Conservative friends, and you quickly discover they mean they don’t have any Tory pals close enough to be a contender for one of the 30 spots at a Covid-era wedding: a definition of friendship so narrow as to be almost useless.
But the other side of the argument, too, is flawed. People talk of how cross-party comradeship is the glue that holds parliament together: that without making friends in the other parties, MPs aren’t doing the best job for their constituency. But the reality is actually the other way around: it’s not that forming attachments with the other side makes MPs more effective, it’s that more effective MPs end up being liked and respected by the other side almost by accident.
Take Geoffrey Cox, who was Theresa May’s last attorney general and Boris Johnson’s first. If someone in England suffers a miscarriage of justice or some other major legal problem, the issue crosses the attorney general’s desk. Labour MPs liked Cox, even though in the House of Commons he enjoyed putting them down, because when they had to deal with him they found him intelligent, hardworking and courteous. Equally, Tory ministers speak highly of Karen Buck, a campaigning Labour backbencher who has secured a number of changes to the law over the past decade, not because she remembers to send them a Christmas card but because they find her honest and pleasant to deal with.
Forming a friendship isn’t a planned process. Our relationships develop in their own time, at their own speed, and are based on any number of things: a shared interest, a similar outlook, or the same bad taste in jokes. Like mould growing in an opened jar, friendship is often something that happens while you’re doing other things. I don’t think that you have to make friends across the party divide to be a good MP, but I find it hard to believe that someone could do the work of being a good legislator without forming bonds with MPs in other parties along the way.
There’s another reason that we journalists get upset when new MPs criticise cross-party friendships. It’s not our commitment to the legislative process, but because many of us form friendships both with other journalists and with politicians too. Some go to great lengths to stop this happening: the sketch writer Simon Hoggart once recalled a political journalist who believed that meeting MPs was to be avoided, as it compromised the purity of their hatred. It would be impossible to do my job without talking to MPs, but it’s true that the inevitable process of growing fond of the people you work with does bleed into how you write and think about them.
It’s easy for a friendship to survive a difference of opinion over the rightness or wrongness of a policy, especially if you can both agree on the facts. But how should you react when your friends do something, intentionally or not, that causes harm?
At the select committee hearing on 26 May, Dominic Cummings’s evidence to MPs showed that very few people, inside or outside government, queried the explicit logic of the first pandemic plan – that many thousands would die. Cummings blamed “groupthink”, which is part of the problem, but another part is surely “matethink”: no one likes to say that their friends have failed to understand the implications of the policy they have adopted. Yet it has been clear for more than a year that minsters simply did not comprehend the bloody cost of their original strategy for tackling coronavirus.
That doomed approach to managing the pandemic was not the first time that a government has caused suffering due to its incompetence. Nor was it the first time that the media, for the most part, presumed that the government knew what it was doing: a belief that turned out to be horrifically misguided.
Friendship may, like mould, grow unattended. But the complacent assumption that your colleague or friend knows what they are doing can also, like mould, be deadly.
This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West