Stratton’s departure as Press Secretary. Vote Leave is blamed – and hits back.

21 Apr

When the Prime Minister last appointed a Press Secretary, ConservativeHome was told that Lee Cain’s candidate, Ellie Price, performed better in trial live media conference tests; but that Carrie Symonds’ candidate, Allegra Stratton, got on better during pre-post Boris Johnson interviews.

At any rate, Stratton will not now be exposed to those American-style press conferences as Press Secretary – a very high wire to walk given the unprecedented nature of the events.  Instead, the deal is that she will still speak live for the Government…but only on COP26: with more restriction on the scope of questions, there will be less chance of her being ambushed.

When a plan goes awry in Downing Street, the response now tends to be: blame Vote Leave.  And both Cain, the former Director of Communications, and Dominic Cummings were duly shouldering responsibility this morning for dreaming up an arrangement that would have exposed Stratton to cruelly probing, sadistically-crafted questions.

The one put to Boris Johnson during yesterday’s press conference about his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri was being cited this morning as an example.

Characteristic, narcissistic, media-obssessed, self-regarding Westminster Village trivia, reply friends of Vote Leave.  “It was not about the lobby,” one of them told this site.  “It was about getting a message out to voters beyond the M25, and Johnson knows that he made the wrong appointment.”

At any rate, we are now back to the structure that was in place before Stratton’s appointment.  Jack Doyle steps up to become Director of Communications, replacing James Slack, who has taken on a senior role at the Sun.  Max Blain becomes the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman, and Rosie Bate-Williams is the new Press Secretary.

Much will be made of the £2.6 million spent on a new media suite for those U.S-type briefings.  But this White House theme is a bit of red herring.  Number Ten has grasped from the Coronavirus pandemic that press conferences offer them that direct access to voter’s living rooms – Vote Leave-style, without journalistic filter.

All that will now change is that Downing Street will use the suite for special events of its own timing and choosing – rather than expose itself regularly to sarky questions from the lobby.

Mind you, that wouldn’t have worried Vote Leave at all: Trump-style verbal punch-ups with self-regarding liberal broadcasters would have been grist to their mill.  Stratton wouldn’t have been up for that, and neither now is Johnson himself, if he ever was.

Finally: don’t read too much into this change. There will be speculation about moves to the left and moves to the right and all that.  Forget about all that.  Even the point that Stratton was Symonds’ preferred candidate is a snap summary of a more complex position.

All that’s happened is that Johnson appointed a softer-edged spokesperson to help deliver a Vote Leave idea, which was never going to work.  So under the cover of the distintegration of the Football Superleague, the idea’s own collapse has been quietly slipped out.

Iain Dale: 400,000 police records have gone. In the Blair years, home secretaries were forced to resign over less.

22 Jan

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Wednesday really did seem a Ground Zero or reset day in the United States. Donald Trump departed much more quietly than I thought he might, and apparently even left Joe Biden a nice letter on the desk in the Oval Office. As well he might, given he didn’t attend the inauguration.

Even his farewell address at Andrews Air Force Base was quite muted, in front of only a couple of hundred people. These didn’t include Mike Pence, now former vice president, who pointedly chose to attend Biden’s inauguration instead.

The beginning of a new presidency is always a time for glass half-full optimism, but the tasks facing the new president are daunting to say the least.

I wrote last week that I doubted if Biden had the imagination or the energy to unite a very divided nation. His speech on the steps of Capitol Hill on Wednesday struck all the right notes, even if the delivery wasn’t what it might have been.

My suspicion is that this will be much more of a co-presidency than usual, with Kamala Harris playing much more of a central role in government than is usual for a vice president.

She needs to carve out a proper role if she is to be given a chance to prove herself in advance of what is surely an inevitable run for the Democratic nomination in 2024.

That is assuming an 82 year old Biden doesn’t fancy a second term. Friends in Washington tell me he’d have to be dragged out of the Oval Office kicking and screaming.

Becoming president at 78 shows, I suppose, that you should never give up on your dreams, and that you’re never too old.

I’ll be 61 at the 2024 election. Perhaps I should revive my political ambitions…

On the other hand, tending my roses in my Norfolk garden holds more allure nowadays. #oldbeforemytime

– – – – – – – – –

I learned an interesting lesson Twitter this week.

My friend Daniel Forrester alerted me to this post from the CBS show 60 minutes, in which Bill Clinton reads the letter George H W Bush left for him on the Oval Office desk.

The lesson I learned was that people are quite happy to reply to a Tweet they haven’t read properly.

Most of the responses I got were along the lines of how could I possibly maintain that Clinton knew how to behave when he’d got a blow job in the Oval Office etc etc.

They ignored the fact the Tweet was about Bush, 41, a man who embodied the very essence of public service.

I was assailed with insults. However much I protested, it seemed to make it worse.

God I hate Twitter.

– – – – – – – – –

Allegra Stratton, the very capable new Downing Street Official Spokeswoman, was supposed to commence live press conferences ten days ago.

It didn’t happen and we’re told the whole idea has been put on hold indefinitely because it was felt inappropriate to commence them during a lockdown.

Hmm. That has all the ring of a desperate excuse about it. I’d have thought now was exactly the time that the Government should be utilising all communications methods at its disposal.

– – – – – – – – –

When a government department makes a monumental cock-up it’s usually the Secretary of State that has to face the music. It doesn’t get much more serious than deleting 400,000 records of criminals.

Yet it wasn’t the Home Secretary with whom the buck has stopped. It is her junior, Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, who has had to explain it in the media and make a statement to the House of Commons.

In the Blair years, home secretaries were forced to resign over less.

– – – – – – – – –

Hilary Benn is a politician I admire, but this week he has been whinging that his Brexit Select Committee has been abolished and not had the chance to vet the trade deal with the EU.

He should be grateful it wasn’t abolished at the same time as the department it was scrutinising. The fact is, a trade deal should be scrutinised by the International Trade Department Select Committee.

We are now out of the EU and there is no need for Benn’s select committee to continue. As well he knows. Otherwise there would be a precedent for there to be a select committee on virtually everything.

If he’s so desperate to continue it, he could turn it into an All Party Parliamentary Group. I’m sure there would be some financially-munificent arch Remainers who’d love to fund it.

Give me strength.

Nick King: Johnson’s Reset. The Government needs business if it’s to build back better.

22 Nov

Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies

Much has been written in the last week, on this site and beyond, about what a Government ‘reset’ might look like, following Dom Cummings and Lee Cain’s departure from Number 10. Broadly. those perspectives have focused on what might be termed ‘the three Ps’ of positioning, people and policy.

In terms of positioning it has been argued that Number 10 needs to take a less confrontational approach – whether that is towards the media, public institutions or, indeed, Conservative backbenchers.

On people, the part played by the indomitable Carrie Symonds and the increasing importance of Allegra Stratton has been acknowledged, but the search continues for the right Chief of Staff to promote and protect Boris Johnson’s own interests.

The issue of policy is perhaps the least clear cut, with competing views espoused as to whether or not the Government can be the party of Workington as well as the party of Notting Hill. My own view is it can and it must.

But there is a final P which needs to be thrown into the mix – not as a fourth horseman, but as a corollary of the three Ps – and that is the private sector.

The fact is that British business is at a low ebb right now, in terms of performance, confidence and its relationship with Government. Covid-19 is the most obvious explanatory factor for those first two issues – forcing millions of businesses up and down the country to close will take the wind out of their sails however generous the set of support packages provided. But introducing those measures only serves to make the job of working constructively with British business all the more important for government. On this task, it has been found wanting.

Across industries, sectors and different parts of the country, there has been consternation and confusion as different restrictions have been introduced, without any (published) economic analysis of the potential impacts or of the evidence base upon which these decisions have been made.

As we approach December 3rd, businesses remain in the dark about whether or not they might be able to reopen, despite the long lead times needed for various parts of the hospitality sector in particular (a sector whose import will perhaps never be as keenly felt as it will be in December 2020).

That businesses don’t feel like the Government supports them is hardly new news, however. Successive polls commissioned by my think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, has shown that a clear majority of small businesses don’t think that the Government is on their side. Indeed, the Government’s own survey data shows that only a quarter of businesses think government understands business well enough to regulate it. But in the context of a national economic shutdown, this is simply not good enough.

This is not to say there aren’t people around Government who understand business, or who are keen to support it. Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma, their political teams and Departments are obviously on businesses’ side, as is Ed Lister and Alex Hickman’s business relations team in Number 10. But the disregard of other influential figures towards business has meant that much of the private sector has failed to get a proper hearing throughout 2020.

The anticipated ‘reset’ is an opportunity for the Johnson administration to put that right. Which duly brings us back to our three Ps.

On positioning, the Government needs to be unapologetically pro-business, free enterprise and open markets. The Conservative Party must defend the role of enterprise and the private sector and be resolutely on the side of the millions of small business owners up and down the country. This is important ground both ideologically and politically – and ground which the Conservative Party is in danger of ceding if it isn’t more full-voiced in its support for business.

In terms of people, Andrew Griffith and Neil O’Brien’s recent appointments are welcome, and will help emphasise the role of business, but change is needed in Number 10 itself. A Chief of Staff with extensive private sector experience would be welcome but, failing that, an understanding and sympathetic attitude towards enterprise should be regarded as a sine qua non. Just as important is for Number 10 to have a strong and expert voice for business sitting within its policy unit. That there has not been a business policy function sitting within the policy unit since David Cameron was Prime Minister is extraordinary – the existing business relations team needs to be strengthened and given a proper policy role.

Which brings us onto the final P of policy, which is the most important of ‘the three Ps’. Positioning and people are all well and good, but fine words doth butter no parsnips, as they say – so Johnson needs to ensure his Government is putting business front and centre as he looks to build back better.

Post-pandemic, securing growth is the only game in town. Without that there is no hope of new jobs, greater opportunities or improved living standards – whether in Workington or Notting Hill. And none of this can be achieved without unleashing the awesome and dynamic power of the private sector.

An important starting point would be to curtail the steadily increasing regulatory burden on business. Each measure, taken on its own merits, seems important and its impact trivial to business. But the corrosive, drip-drip effect takes its toll and as growth flatlines and productivity stagnates, politicians stand with their hands on their hips, double teapoting, wondering why.

Take the recent HFSS (foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt) consultation for example – likely to cost British industry hundreds of millions of pounds. No doubt full of noble intent, but hardly what the economic doctor might order as we look to recover post-pandemic.

More worrying still are the suggestions that we will increase both the rates and the scope of business and enterprise taxes in 2022. This is no way to stimulate and incentivise the businesses who are our only way out of the economic morass in which we find ourselves. Rather than clipping its wings, the Government should provide the wind to help business soar.

Speaking of wind power, the vital role of the private sector was clear in the Prime Minister’s 10 point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. But the truth is that few of his priorities can be achieved without the business community. Levelling up? It requires business investment and private sector jobs in the North and the Midlands. Net zero? Industry needs to transition and innovate our way towards it. Protect the Union? Champion our British businesses and demonstrate our reliance on the free flow of goods and access to important markets both north and south of the border. Global Britain? Remain open to inward investors and get more companies exporting.

Pfizer, BioNTech and other companies have all too ably demonstrated just why we need the private sector recently – it’s the key to solving so many of our problems. Which is why Boris Johnson needs to put it front and centre through his reset exercise.

A reformed Number Ten must get on the front foot with business relations and business policy. It needs to articulate a clear vision of our post-Brexit future, rooted in entrepreneurship, investing in success, focused on innovation, with a skilled workforce, trading with the world and built off the back of our brilliant SMEs. That’s a reset worth waiting for.

Brave New World

15 Nov
  • One of this site’s favourite sayings is that character is destiny.  This being so, it would be unlike Dominic Cummings to go quietly.  At some point, he will surely drop a bunker-busting bomb on Downing Street – his version of recent events.  It will not make happy reading for the Prime Minister.
  • This position overlaps with Lee Cain’s, but isn’t identical.  Like Cummings, Cain is a core member of Team Vote Leave.  Unlike him, he worked for Boris Johnson previously as a SpAd at the Foreign Office, and then as his aide after the Chequers resignation.  “Caino” has a real attachment to his former boss.
  • At any rate, both are gone, and the sum is that certainty has been changed for uncertainty.  With the Johnson/Cummings duo, the Government’s political strategy was a known – and and a core part of it was winning and keeping support in parts of England with a Labour history, from those famous Just About Managings.
  • Does the new Downing Street aim to carry on marching north, as it were, but with fewer male, macho officers in charge: more Allegra Strattons (not to mention Carrie Symonds, now fully politically engaged?), fewer Cains   If so, will such a switch work?  Isn’t in-your-face anti-establishment aggression an integral part of the exercise?
  • Or does the Grand Old Duke of Johnson intend to march his army back south towards its home counties comfort zone – to make a greener, kinder, gentler and more female pitch to a more familiar Tory audience, with today’s Prime Minister magically recreated as yesterday’s London Mayor?
  • Either way, it is, in principle, a bad thing for a Government to seek to reinvent itself after less than a year in office.  If it’s messed up the past – by its own tacit admission – why trust it in future?  In practice, it is also swapping certainty for uncertainty: Johnson risks becoming a blank sheet of paper on which others will scrawl whatever they wish.
  • Which is what’s happening now.  So it’s necessary to discount much of what you are currently reading and seeing as rumour and speculation.  What’s certain is that the Prime Minister needs to make some decisions fast: first, about Downing Street itself.  Second, about the Government.  Third, about policy and strategy.
  • On Downing Street, he needs a permanent Chief of Staff.  What would fit the bill is a senior civil servant, not an MP, with political views.  That sounds a lot like David Frost, when the Brexit negotiation is over.  Sajid Javid’s name is presumably being floated because Symonds was his SpAd, but he would be wrong for the post.
  • Which takes us to government.  Able politicians should be running departments as Cabinet members, not working as staffers in Number Ten.  Johnson cannot now avoid a reshuffle at the top.  That means bringing in talent old and new: Javid, Tom Tugendhat, Jeremy Hunt, Kemi Badenoch, Liam Fox.
  • And, on the subject of governing better, Cabinet members should be given their heads and not micro-managed.  There can be no repetition of the Cummings experiment – not least because it would be impossible to find a substitute for him, anyway.  Circumstances make it inevitable to try a more traditional style of government.
  • That also suggests: a single elected MP, who has independent political authority, as Party Chairman; a new Chief Whip and more experience in the Whips’ Office; an Andrew Mackay-type senior MP to sit in the key Downing Street meetings and to work the backbenches.
  • Next, and turning to policy, the Brexit trade talks.  Cummings’ departure raises two possibilites.  First, that any deal is written off as a “betrayal of Vote Leave’s legacy” and “a stitch-up by Remainers” (point of information: Symonds and Stratton both voted Leave).  And that No Deal leaves Johnson bereft of Cummings when he most needs him.
  • Then there is Covid-19 – and the December 2 deadline for returning to the three-tiered system.  The emergence of the Covid Recovery Group is a sign of a rising backbench revolt against lockdown.  Attempts to prolong it would blow up the fragile truce currently in place between Downing Street and MPs.
  • On policy, other quick points.  MPs opposed to the Government’s housing plans are moving in to try to kill them off; others who back a “war on woke” are mobilising (in the wake of reports that Johnson wants to steer clear of one); and all agree that the Prime Minister is increasingly preoccupied by the possibility of losing Scotland on his watch.
  • What will any new stress on green policy mean, as COP26 looms into view?  One version would be a softer-focused one, focused on emissions, climate change and animals (a passion of Symonds).  Another would be harder-edged: preocuppied with growth and “green jobs” – that stressed by such pro-Brexit provincial politicians as Ben Houchen.
  • Uncertainty reigns elsewhere, too  For example, does the Prime Minister really want to recreate a Cameron-era style Policy Board – led by an MP: reportedly, our columnist Neil O’Brien? If so, how would it, and new taskforces with MP members, dovetail with the Number Ten Policy Unit, as led by Munira Mirza?
  • The media is currently trampling on the grave of Dominic Cummings.  At some point, much of it will turn on Symonds.  Her backers will point out that she is a communications professional, and entitled to have views.  Her critics will argue that she is unelected, and holds no official position.  There are claims of sexism.  This is where we are going.
  • And finally, there is one very senior Conservative politician indeed who is keeping well out of it – and, no, we don’t mean Michael Gove, who is still our candidate to bring order to policy and process.  Rather, we are thinking of the man last seen placing his rangoli outside Number 11 for Diwali: Rishi Sunak.

The media coverage of Symonds reeks of sexism

13 Nov

Over the last few days, newspapers have paid a great deal of attention to Carrie Symonds, the fiancé of Boris Johnson and former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party.

It is reported that she, along with Munira Mirza, Director of the Number 10 Policy Unit, and Allegra Stratton, the new face of Number 10 press briefings, objected to Johnson’s plans to make Lee Cain his chief of staff, and ultimately caused Cain’s subsequent resignation. Many see this as evidence that Symonds has too much power, and have even joked that she is now the de facto Prime Minister.

The intricacies of what happened with Cain at Number 10 still aren’t completely clear. But whatever the case, it was no excuse for the avalanche of sexism that has been directed at Symonds and the other women reportedly involved in Cain’s departure. 

Take some of the words that have been printed about Symonds. Papers claim she is called a ”princess” and “dubbed the ‘Duchess of Downing Street’”. Would anyone – in any context – have ever referred to Philip May, Denis Thatcher, or the male partner of any female politician as a “prince” or a “Duke”? I think we all know the answer.

In another example of sexism, newspapers claim that Symonds teamed up with Mirza and Stratton to see off Cain. One headline reads “How ‘Carrie’s Crew’ saw off the ‘Brexit Boys” about the trio, as though they were 10-year-olds telling tales on Cain to a teacher.

Aside from this being an infantilising description of some of the most important figures in the Government, it reflects a depressing tendency to group women together, as if they think the same. Perhaps Mirza, Stratton and Symonds all objected to Cain for their own individual reasons. Why relate it back to their gender?

Critics of Symonds will say their main objection is not that she is a woman, but that she has interfered too much in political decisions. However, it begs questions about what this “interference” means. It is not unrealistic, for example, to assume that Prime Ministers’ partners might offer opinions, with varying levels of zealousness, on their other half’s work (even if that is running the country). And leaders have to decide how much they want to listen to the advice.

Symonds is not just any political partner, either; her experience as former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party, and as one of the most prominent campaigners in last year’s elections, puts her in a unique position in terms of political insight.

But that’s not the point. The point is the level of vitriol directed at Symonds. It is all the more pertinent in the same week Kate Bingham, Head of the Government’s vaccine task force, found herself receiving equally harsh treatment, albeit because of a £670,000 PR bill. Whatever one’s view on the PR view, it does seem to me that women in these positions sign up to an astronomical level of scrutiny.

As one paper wrote about Bingham “She is obviously very talented, she speaks her mind and gets straight to the point, but has frustrated a lot of people at the department”, which I also cannot imagine being said about a man.

In short, we think we have come a long way in fighting sexism, and in many ways we have. But there are still things that people say and do, sometimes without even noticing, that reveal just how unfamiliar many are with the idea of women occupying political spaces and roles – even in 2020. Referring to Symonds as a “princess” is just the start, unfortunately.