Carole Walker: How the Lobby adapted to lockdown. And why Cummings’ and Cain’s plan to foil it was seen off.

14 Jun

Carole Walker is a Times Radio presenter and author of Lobby Life – Inside Westminster’s Secret Society, published by Elliott and Thompson on 24th June.

It has been quite a weekend for political journalists – and not just because the gathering of world leaders for the first real summit since the pandemic provided a stream of scenic photo-opportunities, off-the-cuff comments, diplomatic spats and news conferences.

The lucky few hacks who managed to get accreditation were liberated from months of Zoom conversations for a few days on the Cornish coast, the closest most of us get to exotic travel these days. Their media centre may have been a good 25 miles from Carbis Bay, where the presidents and prime ministers rubbed shoulders behind formidable security, but at least Lobby correspondents were treated to their first proper briefings from the Prime Minister’s spokesman in person, for more than a year.

The regular meetings of political reporters and the Number Ten Press Secretary date back almost 100 years to the turmoil of the General Strike, when the beleaguered Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, decided that he needed to formalise relations with the newspapers to try to get his message across. The sessions have continued through wars and political dramas, though there have been occasional upheavals when relations between government and media have broken down.

When Britain’s first lockdown was imposed in March last year, the Lobby briefings moved online, with journalists joining via their laptops from spare rooms and kitchen tables. This coincided with the start of the regular on-camera news conferences from the Prime Minister and other members of his Cabinet, along with senior scientific advisers.

Downing Street considered these to be a huge success, with large audiences taking the opportunity to hear directly from those in power. The development also fitted the agenda of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser at the time, Dominic Cummings, and his ally from the Vote Leave campaign, Lee Cain, who was then Director of Communications in Downing St. They’d had numerous high-profile clashes with the media and, were keen to bypass some of the main broadcasters whom they believed had become too big for their boots.

They were also keen to curtail the power of the Lobby in shaping the political narrative. In one of Cummings’ famous blogs, shortly after the 2019 election, he criticised the way communication at Westminster was “generally treated as almost synonymous with talking to the Lobby” and declared “with no election for years and huge changes in the digital world, there is a chance and a need to do things very differently.” When asked his views on the future of the Lobby at a drinks party, he put it more succinctly, drawing a finger menacingly across his throat.

Yet while the regular news conferences became a feature of the pandemic, the off-camera Lobby briefings drew larger attendances than ever, as journalists took the opportunity to access them remotely, at a time when the Government’s message had never been more important and most other political gatherings were cancelled.

With questions raised on every aspect of the crisis, follow-ups submitted throughout the session and no limits on how many times a particular point could be pursued, the virtual meetings frequently lasted for up to an hour and a half. They also yielded far more detailed information than the televised news conferences, where ministers and advisers were often defensive and determined to stick to agreed lines.

Of course, the briefings from Number Ten are only one source for those who write and broadcast our political news, who constantly speak to their contacts in different parties, read reports and follow up tip-offs from numerous different informants. One of the key privileges of the unassuming brown Lobby pass is that it gives the bearer access to many parts of the parliamentary estate that are otherwise restricted to MPs and their staff, thus providing invaluable opportunities for informal chats and coffees with politicians and advisers, which enable them to understand the competing pressures at play. When lockdowns forced journalists to work from home, they resorted to even greater use of their mobiles to glean the sort of insight into the corridors of power which their readers and audiences expect.

Cummings and Cain were key figures in the plan to introduce White House-style televised briefings which would have replaced some of the off-camera sessions for Lobby journalists. Cain saw this as another way to “take back control” and deliver a message directly to voters.

It did not quite go to plan. The appointment of the former television journalist, Allegra Stratton, to be the public face of the government led to a ferocious bout of infighting at Number Ten which resulted in the departure of both Cummings and Cain. By this time, the pitfalls of their media strategy were becoming all too apparent to those around Johnson. It was a time when he was beset by questions over leaks of his personal text messages, his relationship with the American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri and the refurbishment of his Number Ten flat.

The new communications team, including senior former journalists, realised the dangers of Stratton facing a barrage of awkward questions from some of the most experienced political hands in the country, live on TV, providing ample material for all the channels to cover uncomfortable stories about Boris Johnson’s personal life, which they might otherwise ignore.

It would almost certainly have made the Lobby more, rather than less, powerful in setting the news agenda. So the much-delayed televised briefings were scrapped. The newly created £2.6 million studio became the setting for ministerial press conferences, and Stratton was given a new role as the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman for this autumn’s COP 26 climate conference.

The Lobby briefings continue as before, off camera but on-the-record, with the government trying to convey its key messages and the journalists challenging its strategy and policies. While the rules once stated that it was a “point of honour” for no-one to leave the meeting until it had finished, those attending are still supposed to wait until the end before broadcasting or posting any lines on social media, though critics of the system have deliberately flouted this arrangement. There is now a healthy competition to be the first to tweet key quotes and many newspapers have their own live pages, constantly updated with the latest developments.

In the 140 years since its creation, the Lobby has adapted, expanded, become more open and transparent. In an era of conspiracy theories and fake news, its journalists are uniquely placed to sift the truth from the chaff of unfounded rumour. They may not get everything right all the time, but they undoubtedly strive to give their readers and audiences a clear and comprehensive account of what is going on and what is going wrong.