No 10 press briefings plan axed as Stratton moves to Cop26 role
Proposals for White House-style televised presentations shelved as press secretary changes jobs
Plans for White House-style TV briefings in a new £2.6m Downing Street hub have been axed after the aide chosen to front them, Allegra Stratton, was moved to become Boris Johnson’s spokeswoman on the climate change summit Cop26.
Stratton, a former BBC and ITV journalist, was hired to be the face of government on a £125,000 salary last year.
The televised briefings were said to have been inspired by Donald Trump’s administration. They would have followed months of regular coronavirus press conferences in which Johnson, ministers and experts have had a platform to address the public directly.
But despite the hiring of Stratton, who previously worked for Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, the White House-style briefings were repeatedly delayed amid changes to Johnson’s inner circle.
Stratton’s new job will see her work more closely with Alok Sharma, the president of Cop26, a crucial summit in Glasgow next November, which Johnson is keen to use to burnish his green credentials.
Plans for the TV press briefings were devised by the former No 10 head of communications, Lee Cain, who quit last November alongside his ally Dominic Cummings. Cain was succeeded by James Slack, who only lasted a few months in the role before himself being succeeded by Jack Doyle, a former Daily Mail associate editor for politics.
As the coronavirus pandemic wore on and the hoped-for return to normality failed to materialise, the briefings were repeatedly pushed back. They were then earmarked to begin after the local elections in May, but it emerged on Tuesday evening that the decision had been taken to drop the idea completely.
A No 10 source said the coronavirus briefings, which used to take place daily and are now going ahead less frequently, had proved there was public appetite for ministers as well as scientific advisers and officials to take the lead on press conferences.
They added that Cop26 is a “very important priority for the government”, with Stratton chosen given her experience over the past six months fielding political questions in daily lobby briefings for journalists, virtually and off-camera.
But they acknowledged that the decision to make the televised press conferences a regular fixture could be a tricky path to navigate for broadcasters, should they become less about urgent Covid updates and move on to general government business.
Another No 10 insider said the move to scrap the TV briefings with journalists was “inevitable” and that the can had been “kicked down the road for so long” that there was now a lack of appetite for the idea among some government figures.
It was revealed last month that the government had spent more than £2.6m renovating the space in No 9 Downing Street – a move that sparked anger from Labour as it came at the same time as NHS staff were recommended a 1% pay rise.
The new space saw a stage erected, with podiums and union flags, as well as a screen to display slides, and audio-visual equipment including cameras and microphones to professionalise the press conferences.
The Cabinet Office said that the amount reflects that No 9 is a Grade I-listed building, and added: “This will necessarily require one-off capital works, including audio-visual equipment, internet infrastructure, electrical works and lighting.
“This spending is in the public interest as the new broadcasting of lobby briefings will increase public accountability and transparency about the work of this government now and in the future.” A Tory MP at the time called the whole thing a “waste of cash” and “far too American”.
The spending raised tempers even further given another revelation last month that Downing Street was trying to set up a charity that could cover the costs of the refurbishment of Johnson’s flat, which he shares with his fiancee, Carrie Symonds.
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said: “Boris Johnson is clearly running scared of scrutiny and questions about Tory sleaze and dodgy lobbying. Instead of wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a pointless vanity project the prime minister should have used the money to give our NHS heroes a pay rise.”
source: Aubrey Allegretti