Philip Hammond’s future downgrading of the Autumn Statement, which we wrote about earlier today, is part of a wider story about how this Government works. Like Theresa May’s preference for grey-haired Ministers over younger ones, for Cabinet committee discussion rather than closed decisions with chums, and for a desk in her office for work rather than sofas, it reflects a desire for orderly administration.
Downing Street’s way of dealing with the media is another part of the tale. The Prime Minister wants to halt the compulsive news management that began with Tony Blair, endured under Gordon Brown and continued under David Cameron – who in this sense was certainly, as he once styled himself, “the heir to Blair”. One senior figure in Number 10 told ConsevativeHome recently that lobby journalists are informed “it’s not our job to write your splash each day”.
Some of them find the change refreshing. One told me recently that he admires the way in which May’s team refuse to spoonfeed the media. But other have got used to Blair model, and resent it being abandoned. Evidence for this can be seen on the Mail on Sunday‘s front page this morning, which reports something that Gavin Williamson is said to have said about someone else – all in all, a bit of a tsunami in a teacup.
So what is it doing as the splash? My reading is that it is part of a message which some papers and journalists are now delivering to Downing Street – namely: “Give us some stories. Or else.” One view of the overall outcome is that May will follow in the footsteps of Brown – who originally, in his early “Not flash just Gordon” period as Prime Minister, tried to so the same; came under the same sort of fire for doing so…and was then forced off his choice and back to the Blair practice. May’s task is even harder in that she is seeking to make the change at the same time as Brexit is taking place.
A consequence is that the papers are full of negotiation rumour and Ministers’ differences – those Cabinet committees are leaking severely – with few offsetting Government announcements on other topics to compensate. The conventional wisdom is that this won’t matter much as long as these difficulties don’t leak out on to the TV news – since too few voters read the prints for such stories to gain any traction with them. Perhaps this is right: the Conservative poll lead is formidable. But either way, we can look forward to similar tales gaining similar projection during the weeks and months ahead.