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.