When Downing Street Idealism Meets Daily Reality

18/07/2016 16:58

It's 8.25am and the inner circle is gathering inside the Prime Minister's study at No10.

The PM's Chief of Staff hands out the printed agenda prepared so recently that it is still warm to the touch from the laser printer. On a single side there are a half a dozen pressing issues requiring discussion.

Yet first amongst them is always the same opening item. It simply reads: The Media.

These get-togethers, duplicated again at 4pm, provided the daily sat-nav for the Cameron/Osborne Downing Street operation. The eight-thirty and four helped navigate the administration through six years of both good and bad times.

Whist I was Chairman, unless travelling, my diary was shaped around attending both these daily sessions. But I would sometimes wonder whether a more distanced approach to the daily media noise wouldn't be more conducive to constructive government. Could, for example, a modern PM learn from the approach of our Sovereign? Try to be more above the media fray by regally allowing the daily discourse to simply pass by; uncommented and unreacted to? After more than two and a half years of participating in these No10 meetings, it is with regret that I am sorry to report that the answer in reality is quite simply no.

In fact, I don't believe any modern government can afford to ignore the relentless, virile, often ferocious and sometimes destructive news cycle. And here's why...

The next time the PM steps outside her front door, she will doubtless be asked about the day's main news item most likely by a hack shouting across Downing Street. She will sensibly ignore the voice as she steps into her waiting Jag. But then it is on to the school or factory where the PM is launching the government's latest shiny new education or industrial policy. The TV cameras have of course turned up to record the moment, but the only clip they will actually feature on the news bulletin will be when the journalist asks about the day's other news agenda which, much to the Prime Minister's quiet frustration, isn't what she actually came to talk about.

Regardless at what happens at that launch, the story will move on to the House of Commons chamber because come midday on Wednesday Prime Minister's Questions is in full swing. Now there is simply no escaping that news item and failing to give a clear response will be far worse than having taken the time to think through a planned line to take well in advance.

So there is simply no avoiding it. No chance of becoming royalty-light with space to refrain from comment. No way to avoid the daily buffeting of whatever the country, or at least the media, is actually discussing at that given moment in time.

Back inside the surprisingly small Prime Ministerial study in No10, David Cameron's astute Director of Communications Craig Oliver would list the main news stories. Each headline would be noted, some would attract passing comment, whilst other headlines were so significant that they attracted their own item on the main agenda.

And there would be an unpredictable flow to events. Sometimes a merely mentioned item at the four-pm, might have become a full-blown mini-crisis to be gripped by the eight-thirty the following morning. Decisions would be made about who to despatch on the media. A senior Cabinet Minister like William Hague? One for the Chairman? Or should the Home Secretary be encouraged to record a clip to be shared between all the outlets? And if so, who will actually ask her?

Every administration comes to power with shiny new ideas and plenty of healthy idealism. The abiding challenge for the new Prime Minister's team, led by the very capable Chiefs of Staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, will be to find the right balance between focussing on the big stuff, without allowing the new PM and government to appear too diffident about the daily media hubbub.

It's a difficult balance. Tempting to ignore. But in the end it is what happens when the best laid Downing Street plans meet the daily media reality.

Grant Shapps is the Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield and a former Cabinet minister and chairman of the Conservative Party